Is there an optimal time of day to exercise?

Two new studies say yes. Unfortunately, each claims a different time.

  • Research at the Weizmann Institute of Sciences declares evening to be the best time for an exercise session.
  • Not so fast, says a new study at UC Irvine, which replies that late morning is the optimal workout time.
  • Both studies involved mice on treadmills and measured different markers to produce their results.

We know timing is everything, but does everything rely on timing? When it comes to when you exercise, the answer might be yes.

Two complementary studies were recently published in the journal Cell Metabolism, detailing the relevance of circadian rhythm on exercise. Both studies relied on mice huffing it on treadmills (along with a dozen human counterparts in one of the studies). Both presented an optimal time of day to exercise. The problem is, each study claims a different time.

In the first, mice were put on varying cardio protocols at different times of day. "Mouse evening" is different than "human evening" since rodents are nocturnal. According to this research, evening appears to be the best time of day for exercise efficiency.

The team, led by Dr. Gad Asher in the Department of Biomolecular Sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Sciences, focused on skeletal muscle. They discovered higher levels of post-workout ZMP during mouse evening, affording the rodents an increased exercise ability. When 12 humans were tested in a similar manner the result was the same. As the team writes,

"The distinct daytime and exercise-type transcriptomic and metabolic signature in skeletal muscle point toward a difference in nutrient utilization and metabolic pathway activation, in particular, fatty acid oxidation and glycolysis."

Asher believes this offers a leg-up on those that hit the treadmill in the evening, noting that ZMP is "an endogenous analog of AICAR [aminoimidazole carboxamide riboside], a compound that some athletes use for doping." Apparently, our internal alarm clock offers access to our inner pharmacy at different times.

Morning vs Evening | Best Time of Day to Workout

Not so fast, says Dr. Paolo Sassone-Corsi at the Center for Egpigenetics and Metabolism at UC Irvine. His team also investigated the effects of circadian regulation on metabolism. He says that by the end of the study his team looked out a much different time window.

"Using mice, we compared the impact of exercise on the skeletal muscle metabolism at different times of day. We discovered that exercising at the correct time of day — around mid-morning — results in more oxygen in the cells and a more rejuvenating effect on the body."

Sassone-Corsi measured changes in muscle tissue as they related to glycolysis and lipid oxidation. The key component was a transcription factor, HIF-1α, and its role in exercise efficiency. Homing in on this particular process offered another perspective.

Specifically, Sassone-Corsi says that our bodies utilize carbohydrates and ketone bodies better during a late morning workout; we also break down fats and amino acids more efficiently during this phase.

While both studies involve circadian rhythms, Sassone-Corsi admits that mice living in a laboratory experience reality differently than humans. Physiological differences between an early rising human and a night owl signify varying optimal times of day for pretty much everything, workouts included. If you're not accustomed to hitting the gym at the break of dawn, it is unlikely that a 6 a.m. session will be better when compared to your normal evening regimen.

Nathaniel Clyne attends the gym session during the AFC Bournemouth warm weather training session at NAS Sports Complex on March 21, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo credit: AFC Bournemouth / AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images

In my experiences, there are advantages to both. In the morning (my personal preference, being an early riser), exercise wakes you up and prepares you for the day ahead. I notice a qualitative difference between getting on my laptop on days when I work out first compared to when I do not.

Other benefits of a morning routing include:

  • More efficient weight loss
  • REM sleep aids in motor control
  • Early birds are more consistent (likely because willpower is a limited resource)

Yet evening exercise also has advantages. For example, your body is more limber, having moved around all day; hitting the yoga mat first thing in the morning can be torturous. The wash of chemicals after an evening session sets you up for a restful sleep. Other research suggests that evening workouts allow you to blow off steam from your day while also increasing the intensity of your session. Strength and flexibility are highest in evening.

The answer to the optimal workout time appears to be: it depends. Like diet, exercise programs are individual. Experience and habitual patterns must be factored in. The most important takeaway from these studies is the fact that exercising at any time of the day is better than not exercising at all. Whatever your movement protocol, that you have one is the most important factor.

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Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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