Crack of dawn or into the sunset? The best time to exercise revealed

Want to get maximum results from your fitness efforts? Consider these factors before deciding when to lace up your runners.

Early birds may swear by a morning workout, while night owls might be more inclined to hit the pavement or gym after work.

But scientifically, when it comes to exercise, is it better to train at dawn, or in the afternoon?

New research has found the ideal time of day depends on what you want to achieve — and whether you’re a man or a woman.

Best time to exercise for men and women

The study asked participants to train before breakfast, or at night, while also following a specific meal plan.

It found men who exercised at night showed bigger improvements in heart and metabolic health, and in emotional wellbeing.

However, for women, the results were a little more varied.

Those who exercised in the morning showed the greatest reduction in total body fat, and belly and hip fat.

But women who worked out later were ahead when it came to upper body muscle strength, power, endurance, mood and satiety.

Thankfully, all participants improved their overall health and performance — no matter what time of day they worked up a sweat.

Can exercise time impact performance?

While most of us mere mortals just exercise when it suits us, Deakin University lecturer Dr Spencer Roberts says elite athletes definitely consider the time of day.

“For example, performance typically peaks in the late afternoon and early evening,” Dr Roberts, of the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, explains.

At last year’s Tokyo Olympics, a decision to hold the swimming finals in the morning to suit TV broadcasters — instead of the usual evening timing — threw athletes into a spin, and was dubbed the “Tokyo twist”.

How exercise time can influence the way you use fuel

When you’re exercising in a fasted state, as some of the study participants did, the body tends to rely more on fat as a fuel, Dr Roberts says.

“Whereas in the evening, they were exercising after three meals a day, so there’s probably more reliance on carbohydrates as a fuel,” he adds.

As a morning person, Dr Roberts says he prefers to exercise before work, finding it also leads to improvements in mood which last throughout the day.

Does the time we exercise really matter for most of us?

University of Western Australia exercise physiologist Dr Kym Guelfi says it’s important to note the study was confined to only healthy active participants.

“Whether the results are applicable to those less active or overweight individuals — which is the majority of us here in Australia and the US — is not known,” Dr Guelfi adds.

Either way, she says it’s important to note that all of the study’s participants experienced numerous benefits.

“It is just that for some of those specific outcomes, one time of day did slightly better,” Dr Guelfi explains.

Why the best time to exercise is when it suits you

Given a lack of time is often the biggest barrier to exercise, Dr Guelfi recommends just fitting it in wherever you can, noting most people don’t do enough as it is.

“For some, getting it done in the morning might mean less chance of the day getting busy and away from you, and not being able to squeeze in a session later,” Dr Guelfi says.

“For others, the thought of morning exercise might be horrifying, and a session at the end of the day might be the perfect way to unwind after a stressful day at work or with the kids.”

Dr Roberts adds it’s important not to let exercise disrupt your sleep too much, so avoid setting your alarm at an ungodly hour or exercising too close to bedtime.

“You don’t want to be ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ — we know how important exercise is, but sleep is also really important for your health,” Dr Roberts says.

Written by Larissa Ham.