Study indicates the 'best time' to exercise for women, depending on your goals

·4-min read

Love a first thing sweat sesh? Or prefer to get your exercise in after work? Whatever your preference, you've probably found yourself wondering if there is a 'better' time to work out, when it comes to maximising your gains.

Now, a small study has shone some light onto the answer – and it suggests that the 'best' time to exercise is different for women, than it is for men, depending on what your goal is.

What did the research show?

The study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology and was conducted by academics at Skidmore College in New York, indicates that women burn more fat – including belly fat – during morning exercise.

Remember: what matters the most is that you can exercise in a way that is sustainable and healthy for you - whatever time of day that is.

Though women who worked out in the morning or the evening 'significantly reduced [their] total body fat,' the researchers wrote, 'the magnitude of improvement was significantly greater in AM exercisers for total body fat mass and abdominal fat percentage.'

These changes in body composition, it should be noted, did not impact their overall body weight, which stayed static. Women who worked out first thing also saw greater reduction of their blood pressure.

However, the study showed that women improved their upper body strength and reached their upper body peak power more when they exercised in the evening.

The upshot? You might want to make workout decisions differently, depending if you have a focus on body fat loss or on gaining muscle power.

For men, both the morning and evening groups witnessed fat loss, with no differences between the groups. The evening group had the edge, however, when it came to dialling down cholesterol levels. Evening exercise, as such, was found to be 'ideal for men interested in improving heart and metabolic health,' says Dr Arcerio, lead study author.

What did the study look like?

The 30 men and 26 women who took part in the 12 week trial were all active, healthy, and between 25-55 years old. To investigate, researchers split participants into a morning and an evening group to train. Next, participants had their blood pressure and body fat monitored for 12 weeks to log any changes seen, along with flexibility, strength, and aerobic power.

The training program consisted of four types of exercise training:

  • resistance exercise

  • interval sprints

  • stretching/yoga/Pilates

  • endurance exercise

The morning group carried out their training for an hour before 08:30, and the evening group carried out the same plan between 18:00 and 20:00.

Participants completed each of the 4 different exercise routines one day per week, meaning they trained for a total of 4 sessions a week.

What was the nutrition like?

Meals were timed to be at specific intervals. On resistance and interval exercise training days, participants ate a small snack of around 250-300 calories an hour ahead of exercise. On stretching and endurance days, participants were fasted beforehand (overnight, for the morning group and for 4 hours before, for the evening group.) They were, however, well hydrated and had access to water and electrolyte drinks.

On fasted days, the morning group ate breakfast after training. All other meals were consumed at 4 hour intervals through the rest of the day. The evening group had breakfast, then every subsequent meal at 4 hour intervals, with a fourth meal eaten after their evening exercise session.

Come rest days, participants had breakfast within an hour of waking up, then meals at 4 hour intervals after. Participants in both groups were given meal plans designed by a registered dietitian.

All participants upped their overall health and athletic performance over the 12 weeks, no matter at what time they exercised. 'The best time for exercise is the best time you can do it and fit it into your schedule,' says Dr Paul Arcerio, the study's lead author and professor of health and human physiological sciences at Skidmore College.

He notes, however, that there is 'something else going on' which means that the ideal time to exercise – if you do have multiple options that work with your life open to you – is different for women and men, depending on your goal.

So, why the differences between the sexes?

The researchers note that it's not clear why men and women respond differently to the timing of exercises, with further research needed, though differences in hormones, the body's internal rhythms and sleep-wake cycles could play a role.

Remember, ultimately, what matters is that you can create a sustainable, healthy exercise routine that works with your lifestyle – no matter what time of day that is.

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