Q: When is the best time of day to exercise?
A: While there are several studies that look at time of day, duration, and type of exercise, there are a variety of schedules and programs that can work for you.
Truly, the best answer to this question is: when you can. I say this as a working mother, a struggling writer with a day job, a registered dietitian who is certified in personal training with a masters in public health, and a night runner. As Nike used to say, just do it.
What do the studies say?
The studies say lots of things! Such as
Exercise in the morning burns more fat.
Three 10-minute sessions per day is as effective as one 30-minute session per day.
A 20-minute HIIT exercise is as effective as a longer duration, steady-state exercise.
Moderate exercise of 150 minutes per week is as beneficial as 90 minutes of higher intensity exercise per week.
Daily walking is as effective as less frequent, high intensity exercise.
I'm not going to bother with citations. Mainly because, while I have no doubt that these various findings have been mindfully researched, at the end of the day, I just hope I get my exercise in. And I hope that for my patients too. And from the range of research findings, it's safe to say that any effort is beneficial as long as it is safe.
One of my first patients once told me, "I started walking daily. I was slow, but I was doing it."
"That's great," I said.
"Yeah, except when the doctor asked me how far I walked each day and how long it took, he said I wasn't walking fast enough."
"Well, I figured it wasn't worth it then, so I stopped."
"What did you do instead?"
"I just went back to watching TV."
Sigh. Head shake. Sadness. I was disappointed in the well-intentioned yet thoughtless guidance by someone in a most highly respected position. Unfortunately, this is not the only example I have encountered where research is blindly referenced without taking into account the human experience and the challenges of life. I genuinely believe that slow movement is better than no movement. Then time and commitment can increase strength, endurance, and perhaps most importantly, self-efficacy.
As a public health professional, I rely on evidenced-based research to guide me in safely advising my patients. As a health coach, I acknowledge the reality of time, responsibilities, and the emotional impact of trying to juggle it all. If we all lived in a lab, without the burden of a job, and someone could make all our meals for us, perhaps we could replicate all the research results in nutrition and physical activity. We'd be keto-tastic doing HIIT exercises at 5am five days a week. And if you're doing that, kudos to you! But for most people, in the absence of a controlled environment, consistency will be the bigger factor in fitness. So if that means you lace up your walking shoes at 7pm, so be it. Enjoy the night air.
For more exercise motivation, check out these other FAQs: