There are mounds of research showing the broad benefits of regular exercise, but most Americans still resist. Even last year, just over a third of men and women of working age—25 to 64 years old—engaged in regular physical activity (that's 30 minutes of light to moderate activity five times a week, or 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week), according to the Center for Disease Control's National Health Interview Survey.
There may have been no year more important for Americans to be exercising than 2009, as the employed were weary with stress from being overworked and anxious, and the unemployed physically and mentally drained by fruitless job searches and foreboding headlines. Exercise provides the rare multidimensional benefits of improved physical and mental health, and morning exercise appears to give workers an edge. In the recently published book, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, coathors Tom Rath and Jim Harter examined the qualities and habits that contribute to high levels of wellbeing in the social, career, financial, physical, and community elements of life. When it comes to daily habits for physical wellbeing, morning exercise is hard to beat. Studies show that a 20 minute workout can boost your mood for hours afterward. "It is so easy to put things off, but when people exercise in the morning, in many cases they did so because over time they realized that working out in the morning puts you in a better mood and you're more productive and you have more energy throughout the workday," Rath says. "People with high levels of wellbeing have been careful to work out early in the morning and not to have heavy meals throughout the day."
Waiting too late to exercise may do some damage to your sleep. Sleep is critical to physical and psychological health and productivity, but it can be a fragile thing. Research shows that strenuous exercise within two hours of sleep can hurt your ability to fall asleep. And when you're working long days, sometimes you have just a couple of hours between the end of the workday and bedtime.
When you put off exercise until your workday is finished, the abundance of scheduling conflicts that arise can be positively mind-boggling. Some days, it may be easy to leave the office by 6 p.m. But other days, you may be working late at the office, juggling dinner invitations, or you may have to pick up the dry-cleaning before the store closes. "People that exercise in the morning are more likely to make it a habit, as there's less chance of scheduling conflicts that get in the way of exercise," says Julia Valentour, an exercise physiologist and program coordinator at the American Council on Exercise. Another benefit of morning workouts: If you're training for a morning race, working out at the same time of day will give you a better time on race day.
Ultimately, the best time to work out is a time that you're most able and willing to commit to. "If you're not a morning person, it's going to make it that much harder to get out and exercise, it's going to be that much easier to put it off," Valentour says. In fact, studies show that the most productive workouts occur when body temperature is highest, which is usually in late afternoon. "It gives you more power, better performance, the muscles are warmer, more flexible, your perceived exertion is lower and your resting heart rate is lower," she notes. The only problem, of course, is that most people are working in the middle of the afternoon.
Valentour shared some tips on making morning workouts a routine:
Find a partner. It's easier to brush off a workout when you're only accountable to yourself, so find a workout buddy who can help you stay on track. "I used to run in the morning when I had a friend who lived in the neighborhood," Valentour says. "I think that's a big motivating factor—having someone there to work out with, especially in the morning, because it's so easy to hit the snooze button. But knowing that she would be there waiting for me, I got up and I did it."