Anyone who’s gotten up early to walk as the sun rises knows that, while getting out of bed is tough, the energized feeling you get from the walk is hard to beat. The same walk, done in the evening as the sun sets, might actually feel relaxing by comparison, helping to settle your nerves after a long, hard day.
Here’s something you might not know, however: A morning walk not only feels different than an evening walk; it also has a different effect on your body.
“There appears to be rather significant differences between the effect of exercise performed in the morning and evening, and these differences are probably controlled by the body’s circadian clock,” explained Jonas Thue Treebak, associate professor at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center, after studying how mice were affected by early or late bouts of exercise. “Morning exercise initiates gene programs in the muscle cells, making them more effective and better capable of metabolizing sugar and fat. Evening exercise, on the other hand, increases whole-body energy expenditure for an extended period of time.”
Here’s how walking in the morning, midday and evening could affect your body differently.
THE CASE FOR A MORNING WALK
What Treekbak’s research team found is not a new idea: Morning exercise primes your muscles to efficiently burn sugar and fat throughout the day. It’s true for mice, and it’s been studied in people, too, particularly when they walk before eating breakfast. Research done in 2013 showed people could burn 20% more body fat by exercising in the morning before eating — just make sure you eat breakfast afterward. Additionally, a morning walk isn’t just good for fat-burning; it may also help lower blood pressure, especially for older or obese people.
From a behavioral standpoint, morning walks are great because, regardless of how the rest of your day shakes out, you’ve checked exercise off the list. Starting the day with a healthy win makes it easier to keep the healthy habits rolling throughout the day.
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THE CASE FOR A MIDDAY WALK
Had a tough morning at the office? A walk before lunch may actually help prevent overeating or choosing a less healthy meal. A study done in 2016 found exercising after “hard mental work,” like working on a report or a rough meeting with your boss, helped people eat fewer calories at lunch compared to their office-bound colleagues. “The modern work environment is highly sedentary and cognitively demanding,” said William Neumeier, PhD, in a press release detailing the study. He explains the study found lactate and glucose that was produced through exercise actually provided energy to the brain in a way similar to eating a snack.
It doesn’t take much: A short walk or even just briskly walking a few flights of stairs can change your body from sedentary to active, helping undo the damage done by sitting for hours at a time. Research has shown just two minutes of stair-climbing done regularly improves your overall fitness.
Behaviorally, your boss will thank you for taking a few minutes to exercise during lunch: Research has found your decision-making actually improves after exercise, compared to eating lunch at your desk. It also helps reinvigorate you for creative problem-solving in the afternoon and helps alleviate the stress from a long morning of work. Consider it your reset for the workday.
THE CASE FOR AN EVENING WALK
A post-dinner walk is a great idea, especially if you struggle with digestive issues. A study done in 2008 found just 15 minutes of walking after a meal is enough to help aid digestion by speeding up the process. It may also help reduce symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux.
Walking after dinner may also give you enough time before dessert to realize you are actually satisfied, allowing you to skip dessert entirely or opt for a smaller serving of something you’ve been craving. A 2019 study found evening exercise could reduce feelings of hunger — helping your body prepare to rest and recover overnight.
While the morning walk energizes you for the day, an evening walk actually does the opposite, helping your body naturally lower cortisol levels and feel less stressed. It’s a great way to end the day on a healthy note, possibly walking with a partner, kids or friends and having a chance to catch up on the day’s events, talk through upcoming plans or just spend some time together away from screens.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Have time for all three? The good news is getting out for short walks in the morning, at lunch and in the evening can give you the benefits of all three options with no downfalls.
Although each time of day has its benefits, the best time to walk is whenever you are most likely to do so (and stick with it). Don’t try to fight what your body and brain prefer: “You may be a morning person, or you may be a night person, and those things have to be taken into account,” said Paolo Sassone-Corsi of the Center for Epigenetics and Metabolism at the University of California, Irvine, after researching the metabolic effects of working out at night or in the morning.
Choose the time of day you’re more likely to stick with, and make it a habit. Science doesn’t lie, but neither does your body.
Make progress every day while you work on fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.