Marta Montenegro: What’s the Best Time to Exercise?

You try hard to make it to the gym. The last thing that you want think about is whether or not it’s the best time of the day to work out and how this varies according to the physical activity that you perform.

But it matters. And here is a little help to guide you through it.

Physiologically the body has its own rhythm to perform at its best. However, the humble body will eventually adapt to almost anything that you put it through on a regular basis. If this is true, why worry about the time to exercise then?

Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D., author of Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?, writes in his book “The best time to work out is generally still whatever time fits best into your daily schedule, since factors like sleep, stress, and fatigue will outweigh the slight boost offered by circadian rhythms.”

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If you have the luxury of flexibility in your schedule, there is an opportunity to make the most out of your workout by respecting your circadian rhythm.

For each activity type, the best time to workout is:

A.     Lifting weights

Brad Schoenfeld, MSc CSCS, says, “There is compelling evidence that strength displays a diurnal pattern, being lowest in the morning hours and then peaking during the late afternoon/early evening. This would seem to suggest that for strength/power adaptations, it’s best to train later in the day. That said, there is some evidence that repeated training in the morning diminishes this diurnal pattern so that there is little difference in strength levels over time provided a person consistently trains early in the day. Moreover, a recent study found that muscle hypertrophy was similar in those who trained early in the day compared to late in the afternoon.”

B.    Endurance/ aerobic types of activity

Schoenfeld explains that there’s still a misbelief that doing cardio early in the morning maximizes fat lost, especially when fasting.

“There are numerous flaws in the theory when applying it to real world situations,” he says. “Ultimately, you should not look at fat loss in a vacuum as to how many calories from fat you expend at a particular time, but rather look at fat burning over the course of days/weeks. When this is taken into account, there is really no evidence that fasted cardio early in the morning confers any additional benefits over non-fasted cardio performed later in the day.”

However, experts suggest that some light cardiovascular activity early in the morning will kick off the metabolism for the rest of the day.

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C.     Yoga/ body mind disciplines/ abdominals and other trunk rotations/ flexion/ extension moves

Being an early bird to do your asanas may not be the best time for yogis. The expert explains, “Stretching exercises that involve the spine should be avoided shortly after rising from bed. Intradiscal pressure has been found to be 240 percent higher in the early morning compared with prior to going to sleep, and bending stresses at the discs are thus increased by 300 percent during this time. As the day goes on discs become more elastic and flexible in bending, reducing the risk of disc prolapsed. A good rule of thumb is to wait at least two hours or so after rising before performing any type of spinal stretching movements, as well as any spinal flexion exercises such as the crunch, etc.”

In the study “Diurnal Variation of Hamstring and Lumbar Flexibility,” published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research states that both sexes experimented similar increases in flexibility for hamstrings and lumbar spine over 12 hours after waking up.

D.    Balance training

If your exercise routine involves moves that work on balance, don’t do this after strenuous upper body workout. In a study where balance was measured after four fatiguing conditions: aerobic lower body, aerobic upper body, anaerobic lower body and anaerobic upper body; aerobic upper body exercise exerted the greatest impact on balance when comparing to the other situations.

It seems that the fatigued upper musculature and trunk eliminates any support to maintain balance which indicates the important role of the upper body when performing unilateral standing balance exercises.

E.    Plyometrics

When doing exercises that relies on the stretch-shortening cycle, which defines the spring response of the muscles when landing on the floor, thus absorbing energy to quickly push out of the floor, releasing the stored energy, such as the vertical jump, jump squats, jump to box, among others, it’s better to lift heavy weights first.

When subjects performed a single set of heavy squats they enhanced the countermovement jumps compared to baseline values.  However, to be this effective make sure that the strength exercise used has the same movement pattern as the power moves. In other words, the specific outcomes that you look must determine the exercises that you choose to do, as documented in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, December 2011.

F.      If you have any of these health conditions:

Diabetes: Schoenfeld affirms that there’s still more research to be done but there is some evolving evidence that fasted cardio early in the day may help to improve glucose tolerance.  Nevertheless, these patients must follow strict exercise recommendations from their specialists. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests in its Complete Guide to Fitness & Health that “ to avoid hypoglycemia, be consistent with your carbohydrate intake with regard to meal time and exercise.” You should consume additional 20-30g carbohydrates prior to exercise if glucose is less than 100mg/dL and do not exercise if blood glucose is greater than 250mg/dL with ketones in the urine.

-       High blood pressure: Both resistance exercise and cardio are in need and offer unique adaptations. The first one lowers the blood pressure while the second decreases arterial stiffness. In general, do resistance training first and then the cardiovascular activity to get the most benefit.

-       Asthma/allergies:  Some studies show that aerobic capacity increases through the day. However, when the immune system is compromised and you plan to work out outside you must consider the climatic effects on allergens and mold.  When the humidity, temperature, rain and wind go up pollen may be higher in the late change.  Unfortunately, it’s harder to say when the best time to exercise is for this population, so make sure that you check these environmental conditions before jumping outdoors.

Nevertheless, time to exercise shouldn’t be an excuse to not to exercise at all. Keep in mind that if you get your body used to get up at 3 am in the morning to run and then hit the weight room, for sure you’ll run better and lift weights better at this time than any other time of day. I get up at this time and have had my best personal bests ever!

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning, coach and master trainer who is an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, combines fitness, nutrition and health  tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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