Why timing may not be everything in exercise

Man looking at his smart watch on wrist

Scientists may have just added a new variable to the who, what, where and how of exercise.  Rather than looking at how we exercise, or what equipment we use, boffins at the Netherlands Cardiovascular Research Institute have decided to study what difference ‘when’ might make.

The study published in the journal of the Physiological Society looked at how our circadian clock (that’s body clock to you and me) and our metabolism work together and whether the interaction could result in different health outcomes depending on what time of day people exercise.

Of course, these kinds of studies are fraught with difficulties and should be treated with caution, however the outcome was interesting.  The results suggested that exercising in the afternoon was more beneficial than working out in the morning.

The study was conducted on 32 men with diabetes.  It found that those who exercised in the afternoon were better able to control their blood sugar levels.  Of course, this was not just about insulin and diabetes, the individuals who exercised in the afternoon also lost more weight. 

While this discovery is good news and could, over time, go some way to helping in the treatment of diabetes and more generally in better understanding how our circadian rhythms interact with our physical health, experts in the field of physical exercise are quite rightly urging caution.

Luke Grahame, Senior Personal Trainer at Roar Fitness London, said: “Whilst the study suggests some promising health benefits associated with exercise sessions later in the day, the single biggest factor in improvement of health markers and body composition will always be consistency. A potentially sub-optimal morning workout performed regularly brings far greater benefit than an afternoon workout that you don’t do. Therefore, the most significant consideration around exercise timing needs to be when a workout can be most conveniently fitted into a schedule.”

According to Luke the complexity of the human body and the depth of information available means there is always interest in forever chasing ‘optimal’. However, in modern life, optimal is often simply not viable and the factor that actually yields the greatest result is ‘realistic’.

From an individual’s point of view, this real-world experience is almost certainly a more important consideration than taking into account any marginal gains that might accrue from tweaking one’s routine. This point was not lost even on the authors of the report. Patrick Schrauwen, one of the scientists behind the study concluded: “I believe that doing exercise is better than not doing exercise, irrespective of timing.”

In short form, start with the what, where, how and why. Only when those have been sorted might you want to think about moving on to the when.