What’s the Best Time of Day to Exercise? Our Editors Compare Notes.
A new study on exercise at different periods of the day begs the question: When do you work, out and why?
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When it comes to exercise, are you an early bird or a night owl? For years, scientists have tried to determine how physical activity at different periods of the day impacts our bodies, and a recent New York Times piece tackles the topic. A February 2022 study had lab mice jog on tiny treadmills (cute!) first thing in the morning, while another group of mice jogged deeper into the evening. The difference in molecular profiles between the two groups seemed to show that mice who worked out early burned more fat, while those exercising in the evening were able to regulate their blood sugar better.
Of course, mice rarely face daunting scheduling snafus like hour-long commutes to work, childcare pickup, or Zoom meetings that run late. My guess is most of our workout schedules are determined more by our availability and motivation, than by science.
As a lifelong endurance athlete, I have exercised at nearly every hour of the day. These days, I am extremely jealous of those diligent souls who work out in the pre-dawn hours. There was a period in my life when I was regimented enough to sneak in a ride or a run before work, but that version of myself went away due to work and parenthood (my daughter is ready to play at 6 A.M. sharp!). It turns out I’m not alone. When I posed the workout schedule to the Outside editorial staff, I received plenty of feedback on when editors choose to exercise and why.
Early Birds Make Their Case
Just so you know, Fred, it’s not impossible to edit stories, parent, and work out in the morning. The trick is to set your alarm for 5 A.M., or have a teething baby who wakes you up at 4:30 A.M., and goes back to sleep, leaving you wide awake. But as a lifelong morning person, I will be the first to admit that morning people are unfairly favored in listicles about habit building and productivity. Sure, it’s great to get in your exercise, check your email, and read the news before the sun comes up. But they conveniently stop the article there, overlooking you yawning nonstop through dinner at 6:30 P.M. or ruining your family game night by bowing out halfway through. (Have you ever, my family asks, tried to play Monopoly with two people?) The truth is, if I don’t work out first thing, before the chaos of work, parenting, and chores, I guarantee that I won’t at all.
—Abigail Wise, digital managing director
My kids are grown and out of the house. But at least on weekdays I still can’t seem to get out and do something before about 6 A.M. I once read an article by a woman who took a year off from work to be with her children. To her surprise, she still generally felt rushed, because she could not stop, say, folding “one more” piece of laundry on the way out the door. On a weekday, I think I need to do one more thing before getting outa here. The clock sneaks on, and it’s 5 A.M. and then 6 A.M. and maybe 6:30 A.M.. I do try to do something every day, even if it’s just a walk on the road up behind my house. That’s only 35 or 40 minutes but always worth doing. I prefer to go in the daylight, but especially in the dark of winter, a treadmill is OK, and you can dial it to go uphill.
—Alison Osius, senior editor
I’m with Abby Wise on this one. If I don’t work out early, it doesn’t happen. My secret: Lay out my running shoes and shorts before bed. I figure if I can just get my shoes on, it’s gonna be hard to skip the run. That plus a dog that has way too much energy and will take revenge on the house if I don’t exercise her.
—Chris Keyes, editorial director
A Night Owl Chimes In
Hey, I’m a parent too! But unlike Abby, I’m rarely capable of getting up at 5 A.M. So let me hit you with this: late-night workouts. I often don’t finish up my day’s work until pretty late, and then have my household chores to deal with and an uncooperative toddler to cart off to bed. It’s not unusual for me to start my workout—usually in my garage climbing gym/weight room/troll cave—at about 10 P.M. I have a nice bluetooth speaker in there, and a projector to play movies on the inside of my garage door. Honestly, it feels like my own little private club. My secret is years of being a night owl and drinking enough Red Bull to kill a less-habituated human being. But if your heart is in good enough condition to absorb all that caffeine, it’s not a bad way to live. This is also how I notch a lot of my midweek ski “days”: Leave the house at 5 or 6 P.M. drive to the resort, and skin up by headlamp. You get the whole hill to yourself! Well, except for the cat drivers I guess.
—Adam Roy, executive editor Backpacker
The Lunchtime Crew
I’m in my twenties and responsible only for my own wellbeing—no pets or children to speak of—so my exercise routine is incredibly flexible. It’s also defined by versatility, volume, and playfulness. In the winter, for the sake of daylight, I’ll usually try to get out around six or seven in the morning for a ski or a ride, and I love the mental and physical clarity and quiet that a morning workout brings for the rest of the day. The challenge there is sleep—I’m also unfortunately dependent on a minimum of eight hours to function properly, and will reliably pay for a lack of sleep around 2 P.M. Working out is also social for me—if my favorite running buddy is free at lunch for a trail run, or all the homies are shuttling our favorite trail after work for a sunset lap, I’m there.
—Abbigail Barronian, senior editor
I feel like so many writers have their morning routines dialed: They wake at dawn to meditate before writing in their gratitude journal and brewing mint tea from their own backyard garden. Then, they get their beach-front jog in before settling in to write their Pulitzer-prize winning novels. My routine is the opposite of that. It is defined by chaos, unconstrained by any responsibility beyond keeping Trail Runner magazine up and running. For me, exercise timing is all about food. How can I eat the most of it? How can I minimize the time spent as my desk, daydreaming about lunch? A true feat of endurance for me is not devouring my lunch by 10:30 A.M. My sweet spot for exercise is about 90 minutes after breakfast so that I’ve had time to digest. Ideally, I’ll finish my run right at lunch time so it’s a seamless transition right into my next meal. If life were an Oreo, exercise would be the cream filling between two delicious snack cookies.
—Zoë Rom, editor-in-chief, Trail Runner
Until about four months ago, I couldn’t have rightfully participated in this conversation. After an ACL reconstruction in March of 2021 (on the tails of starting a new job as EIC of Ski, I was admittedly slow to get back to a regular exercise routine. Old go-tos like running or Lagree weren’t working for me anymore and the longer I stayed away, the more I let work and life’s responsibilities (I’m so amazed by all of you parents!!!), the hardest it was to get back on track. I needed to do something drastic so I hired a personal trainer. 1) I needed direction. 2) I needed accountability, and 3) I needed it to cost me something so I’d value it again. As it turns out, the only time he had available was 12:30 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This means, I now close my laptop in the middle of the workday and dedicate an hour to my physical and mental wellbeing. It’s the healthiest choice I’ve made for myself in the last year and there’s no turning back.
—Sierra Shafer, editor-in-chief Ski
These days I tend to run or ride right at the worst part of the day, which is right smack dab in the middle, when it’s a billion degrees out. Every workout is interrupted by incoming work texts, slacks, and emails, and they all are cut short. But hey, it means I’m so smoked that I fall asleep at 9 P.M. every night.
—Fred Dreier, articles editor
I’m surprised to see so much support for the midday workout because it’s not the most convenient or the sexiest, but for us parents, it’s often a necessity. But there’s one benefit that no one has mentioned yet: it helps keep the midday sleepies at bay. I usually squeeze in a run or bike ride around 1- to 2 P.M., right when I start to get lethargic from trying to get my daughter back to sleep three times in the night or getting up early with my son. Exercise gives me a much-needed shot of endorphins that trumps any dose of caffeine and usually gives me enough clarity to fly through until the end of the day. Do I miss dawn patrol surf sessions or trail running on a ridge at sunset? I sure do, but love a good lunch sweat and will continue to get them for as long as necessary. And, Fred, let’s be honest: nine is a perfectly acceptable time to go to sleep.
—Will Taylor, gear director