When is the best time to exercise?

woman running on beach in morning
Morning exercise has pros and cons (Image credit: Getty)

Whatever your chosen exercise, whether walking, running, cycling or going to the gym, the chances are you favour morning or evening sessions. For some people, the choice of time will depend on other commitments to family and work. But, for others, you might be interested to know there ar pros and cons of  exercising in the morning and evening.

Pros of morning exercise

Good use of time

The obvious advantage of a morning walk or run is that it can be done before you need to start anything else. Going for a work out before breakfast and before other people are up, makes good use of time.

Cooler time of day 

Other pros include getting your exercise at the cooler part of the day, especially in summer.

Great for cortisol 

Many people also report that they feel more alert during a morning work out (once they have got themselves out of bed that is!). Sports nutrition experts at Bulk explains why early morning exercise could be a good idea for you. A spokesperson says: “While you may feel exhausted as you drag yourself to the gym or you chosen training session, your body produces a hormone called cortisol that’s at its peak level at around 8am. 

“Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, helps you keep awake and alert. This hormone will only cause you problems if there is too much or too little of it. 

“Therefore, if you have a healthy circadian rhythm – the 24-hour cycle that includes physiological and behavioural rhythms like sleeping – your body will be more primed to exercise early in the morning.”  

Boost your body clock  

A study in 2019 published by the Journal of Physiology found that exercising at 7am can move your body clock back. The benefit of this is that it will improve how alert you are in the morning but can also prime you to fall asleep easier and earlier that evening, allowing you to get enough rest to wake up and repeat the same routine again the following day.  

 Weight loss

It’s claimed that morning exercise can be god for encouraging weight loss.  For example, a study of people with obesity concluded that constant morning exercise is beneficial, while other research found morning exercise reduces abdominal fat and blood pressure in women.

It’s worth noting that the same research also showed that evening exercise increases muscular performance in women and lowers blood pressure in men.  

How does the time of day affect weight loss? A Bulk nutrition expert says: “Elevated cortisol levels and growth hormone in the morning are both associated with metabolism.

“Therefore, taking high intensity exercise in the morning can help to boost the metabolism and burn more body fat, drawing more of your energy from your fat reserves.” 

man and woman in gym

A morning session at the gym (Image credit: Getty)

Cons of morning exercise

Less time to warm up  

If you are squeezing in exercise in the morning, it’s likely you’ll want to get up and go. This usually means that people forget about a warm up

If you do not have time for a warm up, it means you are more susceptible to injuries. 

Lose sleep 

Getting up early, if you have not got to bed in good time the night before, may well leave you without enough sleep overall.

In addition, many people find that when they need to be up early, they do not enjoy such a good night’s sleep. The anxiety of knowing you need to be up can leave you restless during the night.

Appetite suppressant

Morning exercise on an empty stomach could be key to reducing your appetite throughout the day. Research shows that 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise in the morning actually reduces a person’s motivation for food.

 Metabolic effects 

While an early morning workout is claimed to boost your metabolism early in the day, what then happens is your metabolic rate generally slows down again in the evening.  

In contrast, an afternoon or evening run, walk or bike ride should boost your metabolism later in the day, which is more beneficial if your evening meal is your main meal of the day. 

How about evening exercise?

Doing a work out after 7.30pm has pros and cons. We take a closer look. 

couple walking on beach with dog in evening

You might have more time for exercise in the evening (Image credit: Getty)

Pros of evening exercise

Higher energy levels 

A study from the University of Birmingham revealed that people can exercise up to 20% longer in the evening and at a higher intensity.  

The Bulk expert says: “Therefore, doing workouts at a longer, faster, stronger rate will demonstrate results a lot quicker.” 

 Muscle toner

Muscle strength and function generally peaks in the evening, which means our fluctuating hormones can make workouts later in the day more effective.  

This is example by high levels of cortisol in the morning, which can prevent muscle growth, however higher levels of testosterone in the evening can boost muscles.

What about sleep? 

It has long been suggested that exercising later in the day can affect your quality of sleep because of the “buzz" from post-exercise endorphins. However, a study in Sleep Medicine found that only 2% of people who performed vigorous exercisers found this affected their sleep, while 30% actually slept better.

Stress reliever  

After a long day, whether at the office or in general life, exercise can be a great method for unwinding. The reason for this is that physical activity produces endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers.  

Studies show that among those who exercise, 33% of high-stress adults said they feel less stressed after exercising, compared with 18% of low-stress adults.  

person running on beach in morning

Morning versus evening running has advantages and disadvantages (Image credit: Getty)

Cons of evening exercise

I’ll just leave it for tomorrow 

If you leave your exercise until later in the day, it’s much easier to give into the idea you’re too tired, or you can’t be bothered. 

Many people then find they end up not exercising because they tell themselves they will do it tomorrow instead.

Too late to eat  

Eating after exercise is important for the best recovery. It’s recommended you eat protein and carbohydrates after a run, walk, bike ride or gym session. 

However, if you are completing a workout in the evening, you may not feel like eating afterwards because your appetite can wane late at night.

No stretching

Like exercise in the morning, an evening session might be squeezed in around other commitments, such as your family. In this way, it can be tempting to exercise, then sit down without doing a post-exercise cool down.

In the longer term this might negatively affect your performance due to an increase risk of injuries from fatigued muscles.

Fiona Russell
Outdoor writer

Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favorite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing (both downhill and backcountry). Aside from her own adventures, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy getting outside and exploring, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.