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Is it better to exercise in the morning or afternoon?

Updated on December 8, 2012

Exercise in the morning can increase your metabolism, but that's not the whole story...

Many people believe it is best to exercise in the morning. Their primary rationale is that it will give the rate at which you burn calories (metabolism) a boost, and you will burn more calories over the day. This may be a good thing if you are trying to lose or maintain weight. However, considerable research has demonstrated the amount of calories we tend to eat is naturally influenced by the amount of calories we have burned (with exercise etc.). Hence, exercise we have undertaken may (and usually does) lead us to naturally consume more food unless we are closely monitoring the amount of calories we consume. Researchers often call this phenomenon "compensation."

So the increasing metabolism rationale for it being better to exercise in the morning than the afternoon only holds true if we don't eat any extra calories over the rest of the day. Unfortunately, most people who exercise to lose weight tend to eat extra calories after exercising without realizing it. However, it’s worth noting that if you are not trying to lose weight, then you will receive other benefits of exercise regardless of whether you exercise in the morning or afternoon.

The best kind of exercise is...

Perhaps a stronger rationale when considering whether it is better to exercise in the morning than the afternoon is that we are most likely to exercise regularly if we build it into our morning routine. The best kind of exercise is... the exercise that we actually do (not just plan for, or think about doing while we read about it)! So while exercise in the morning may increase your metabolism, perhaps the greatest benefit is that you are more likely to do it regularly if it is part of your morning routine, than if you plan to do it in the afternoon or at other times.

What if exercising in the morning doesn't suit me?

For some people the best time to build exercise into their routine may not be the morning, but during their lunch hour, in the afternoon or another regular time, simply because that is the time they are most likely to exercise regularly. Exercise will increase your metabolism no matter what time of day you do it. People who exercise on their lunch break may burn more calories in the afternoon and evening. For many busy people with rigid work hours and children duties in the morning and evening, exercise on their lunch break may be the only time they can fit it into their regular schedule.

Exercise timing and sleep

For those who do choose to exercise in the afternoon or evening rather than the morning, getting to sleep can be a common complaint. The body’s physiological response to exercise is not conducive to sleeping immediately afterward. However, exercising at other times in the day that allow your body time to settle and relax before going to sleep actually fosters improved sleeping quality. People who begin to exercise regularly in the morning actually report having more energy during the day, and sleeping better at night.

There are benefits to exercising in the morning, but just make sure you exercise regularly.

So the take home message is that while there are benefits to exercising in the morning, it is most important that we exercise regularly. I recently read an article that indicated 250 000 lives could be saved each year in the United States alone, if its residents were to become moderately physically active. I prefer to exercise in the morning. It clears my mind and I feel good all day. I am then free to focus on the other things I need to do in my daily life. Regardless of when exercise fits into your schedule, just make sure its in their somewhere!

Empirical sources:

Donnelly JE, Smith BK: Is Exercise Effective for Weight Loss With Ad Libitum Diet? Energy Balance, Compensation, and Gender Differences. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews 2005, 33(4):169-174.

Whybrow S, Hughes DA, Ritz P, Johnstone AM, Horgan GW, King N, Blundell JE and Stubbs RJ. The effect of an incremental increase in exercise on appetite, eating behaviour and energy balance in lean men and women feeding ad libitum. British Journal of Nutrition 2005, 100,1109-1115

Stubbs RJ, Hughes DA, Johnstone AM, Whybrow S, Horgan GW, KingN, Blundell J. Rate and extent of compensatory changes in energy intake and expenditure in response to altered exercise and diet composition in humans. American Journal of Physiology. Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 2004, 286(2), 350-8

Stubbs RJ, Sepp A, Hughes DA, Johnstone AM, King N, Horgan G, Blundell JE. The effect of graded levels ofexerciseon energy intake and balance in free-living women. The International Journal of Obesity 2002, 26 (6), 866-869

When do you exercise?

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    • Mickmc profile image

      Mickmc 5 years ago

      Yeah, access to these journal articles will require subscriptions or institutional access through a university etc. so listing hyperlinks to the full text is problematic. A quick google scholar or search would bring up abstracts though for anyone who wants to read a little further. Yes, an article on the math of energy expenditure and energy consumption 101 would be nice... Thanks for your comments and suggestions!

    • Jaggedfrost profile image

      Jaggedfrost 5 years ago

      lol It is interesting how people don't do nutritional math. Thanks for the additions. If you wanted it to be even nicer for those who are extremely lazy you could have made those hot links to the actual studies but why? this is a really good article. I will check but it would be nice to see an article on how to do the math.

    • Mickmc profile image

      Mickmc 5 years ago

      Hi Jaggedfrost, Thanks for your suggestion. I've added in some examples of academic research that has dealt with the issue of compensation. My apologies to anyone who is not used to reading scientific medical writing, they may find it heavy reading. Perhaps the best quote I can think of is that by Professor Tim Church an eminent medical researcher in this field:

      "I see this anecdotally amongst, like, my wife's friends…They're like, 'Ah, I'm running an hour a day, and I'm not losing any weight’... It turns out one group of friends was stopping at Starbucks for muffins afterward… I don't think most people would appreciate that, wow, you only burned 200 or 300 calories, which you're going to neutralize with just half that muffin."

    • Jaggedfrost profile image

      Jaggedfrost 5 years ago

      This article would be boosted if you quoted and referenced the material you are commenting on in this hub. It is a clean article, however, good job.