What's The Best Time to Work Out? We Break Down the Options

Shannon Farrell
Woman running

Photo: Getty Images

As if finding even 20 minutes to work out each day wasn’t tough enough already, now experts claim that the time of day you choose to hit the gym plays an integral part in reaching your goals. Working out as soon as you wake up is rumored to be a key, metabolism-boosting time, but given that the body is most awake in the evening, we’re feeling a little conflicted. Is there a definitive answer out there, or does it really depend on the individual? We caught up with top trainers and wellness experts to get to the bottom of this fitness quandary.

The Case for the Morning Workout
First and foremost, people who train in the morning are more likely to commit to working out on the regular. “By training early in your day you decrease the likelihood of excuses and ‘tiredness’ from the daily grind,” says Mike Dewar M.A., the co-founder of J2Fit and a ReebokONE Ambassador. One of the most common excuses for not hitting the gym is that we’re ‘too full’ to engage in strenuous activity in the afternoon and evening. Dewar suggests morning fitness routines to combat that cop-out. He says, “Training before your first large meal can be beneficial because people tend to lose control of their diets as the day progresses.”

Plus, starting your day off with exercise can helps to prepare the mind for any inevitable stress on the road ahead. In fact, says Dewar, “Exercise has been shown to promote positive mood swings, surges of hormones that promote ‘feel good’ feelings, and most of all, help you de-stress and de-clutter the brain, opening you up to a much calmer start to your day.”

There is one supposed “benefit” to morning workouts that Dewar says is false. Many nutritionists claim that by working out on an empty stomach, the body is forced to rely on stored body fat for energy. In fact, “Research has shown little to no factual basis for this claim. Without providing the body with adequate nutrients prior to training, you force the body to go into survivor mode in which the body spares body fat and breaks down muscle for recovery,” Dewar says. A small intake of protein and carbs beforehand will do the trick to sustain you and reduce muscle breakdown.

However, if you’re doing a longer workout—for example, a marathon training run—you should plan to get most of your fuel from dinner the night before. “Your evening meal the night before your morning workout should be balanced and of adequate calories to support you for the duration of your workout. Don’t choose that night to skip dinner or opt for a low-calorie meal,” says Dena Mangiamele, the founder of Dena’s Fuel For Fitness.

The Case for the Evening Workout
Bottom line, some people just don’t wake up ‘ready’ to work out. “A negative from training in the early morning is that some people need to allow their entire systems more time to function,” says Dewar. “I personally like to train in the afternoon because the act of moving around and being functional at work mentally, and sometimes physically, prepares me for a later training session.” For many people, an intense workout is perfect at the end of the day, when stress is at its ultimate peak.

“In the evening, you are more awake, as well as generally stronger, providing that you don’t do a heavy lifting job all day,” says Randy Ganther, fitness expert and founder of maxfitweightloss.com. “This lends itself well to those who are trying to build muscle, where lifting heavier weights is crucial.” This can also apply to barre, spinning, and interval training workouts that require more strength and concentration than basic cardio exercises.

By planning your workout for later in the day, you also give yourself ample time to feed and prepare for an intense training session, which may require that you make smarter eating choices throughout the day. “It’s extremely difficult to train intensely and efficiently if you’ve gorged on a beer and burger at lunch,” says Dewar.

It All Comes Down to You
So when’s the best time to work out? Well, it turns out that it depends on you and your body. “The best time to work out is actually up to the person’s natural body clock,” says Jennifer McCamish, a former Radio City Rockette and current owner of Dancers Shape, a barre fitness studio in Austin. “It is true that working out first thing in the morning will boost your metabolism, but your metabolism is boosted during and after a workout no matter what time of the day.” If you know that can’t put in the same amount of effort in the morning as you can in the evening when your body is fully awake, McCamish recommends waiting rather than giving it a half-baked go.

The most important factor is to keep it consistent. “If we consistently exercise at the same time each day, our ‘internal clock’ will adjust in time so that we have the energy and become mentally and physically ready to work out,” says Rachel Goldberg, the owner/CEO of Run4Lyfe Nutrition & Fitness. “This point is particularly important if we are training for a specific event. If we’re training for a fun run that is going to start at 7:30 in the morning, it’s a good idea to do most of our training at this time, too.”

Read more: No Joke, You Can Train Yourself to Eat Healthier

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