When is the best time of day to exercise? Research on this topic has been less than conclusive, although the studies tend to lean toward the morning hours as being most helpful for maintaining a healthy weight.
New research, published earlier this month in the journal Obesity, suggests, however, that it doesn’t really matter when we exercise during the day to keep our weight in check — as long as we do it consistently.
This news will be welcomed by individuals who find themselves too tired or too strapped for time to lace up their walking shoes or take a spin class at the gym first thing in the morning.
“A good message for the general public is that the best time to exercise is when you can do it, and if you can do it with consistency, so much the better,” Dale Bond, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, told Reuters reporter Carolyn Crist.
Tracking the hours
The study involved 375 participants who are part of the National Weight Control Registry, which was established at Brown University in 1992 to better understand what enables individuals to be successful at long-term weight loss. All the participants in the current study had lost 30 or more pounds and had kept them off for more than a year. Their average age was 53, and their average body mass index (BMI) was 26.5.
The participants filled out detailed questionnaires about their exercise habits, including when and how long they exercised daily. Of the 375 participants, 68 percent (255) exercised consistently at the same time of day on most days, while the other 32 percent (120) exercised at different times of the day.
Almost half (122) of the study’s participants who worked out at a consistent time did so in the early morning, between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m. The second most popular time — preferred by a quarter (64) of the participants — was in the evening, after 5 p.m.
Regardless of when the exercise occurred, people who exercised at the same time of day were more likely than those who exercised at different times of day to achieve 150 or more minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking, biking or swimming) per week. That’s the minimum amount of physical activity experts recommend for meaningful health benefits.
They were also more likely to reach or exceed 250 minutes a week — the minimum amount recommended for maintaining weight loss over time.
In fact, the people who said they exercised at the same time each day reported about an hour more of exercise per week, on average, than those who said they staggered their daily workouts.
“Exercising at the same time of day, regardless of whether it is during the morning, afternoon, or evening, may help with achieving higher physical activity levels,” the researchers conclude in their paper.
Limitations and implications
This was a small study, and 95 percent of the participants were white. They were highly motivated individuals who had already lost a significant amount of weight — and kept it off. The results might have been different if the study had involved a larger, more diverse — and less motivated — group of people.
But although the study can’t prove that exercising at the same time each day causes people to exercise more, its results make sense given what we know about the psychology behind how habits are formed.
As Bond explained to HealthDay reporter Maureen Salamon, “In order to maintain a large weight loss over a long period of time, behavioral consistence is key. But in terms of higher physical activity levels, it might be that exercising at the same time each day fosters a habit.”
“You don’t have to think about it,” he added. “It’s like brushing your teeth. You just do it.”
FMI: You can read the study in full on Obesity’s website.