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The top 5 benefits of morning workouts

Go for a morning jog!
Go for a morning jog!
Photo by Jason Oxenham/Getty Images

For many of us who work a daytime grind that starts before 9am and drags until the late afternoon, finding and settling into an exercise routine that fits into your busy schedule can be a challenge. Do you bite the bullet and set your alarm early, running the risk that your go-getter mindset at night will be long-forgotten by 6am the following morning? Or do you wait until the evening, when you're likely to be "too tired from work?”

Whatever your persuasion, recent findings about the positive mental and physical effects of morning exercise might be enough to transform you from that alarm-snoozing night owl into the productive and active morning person every 20-something wishes they were when drafting New Years’s resolutions.

1) Workout Your Brain: Not surprisingly, there have been numerous studies that link increased exercise to physical fitness, and while many people who work out regularly are aware that makes them “feel” better, there are actually some proven mental benefits to working out in the morning versus the evening:

A 2009 study indicated that for young adults, engaging in a 30 minute bout of aerobic exercise decreased mental reaction time and increased working memory (A.K.A. short term memory) capacity. A similar study on young adults so linked acute cardio sessions to improved overall cognitive function. While these clinical results are not unique to morning exercise, wouldn't you rather have those sweet mental powerups before you spend the day trying to impress your boss?

Ok, so maybe an extra serving of biological RAM isn’t enough to get you out of bed in the morning. How more positive relations with others, increased self-acceptance, and an improved sense of purpose in life? There’s no therapist on earth that can promise those kinds of results. Hopefully those perks are a little more convincing, because a 2013 on students at Azad University proved exactly that: after doing a selected aerobic exercise accompanied by music each morning for seven days, participants reported a higher level of psychological well-being and lower stress. This study in particular corroborates many other prior research done from 2004-2008 that was focused on specific demographic groups and all showed that morning aerobic exercise reduces depression and reinforces emotional health.

So if you’re in startup mode and are really starting to feel the pressure, putting a little pressure on yourself in the morning to go for a jog, swim, cycle, or hit the rowing machine has the potential to bless you with some great cognitive benefits that will overflow into other areas of your life.

2) Boost Your Metabolism: Another important reason to don your workout garb every morning is that aerobic activity in a fasted state (before breakfast) increases your metabolism for a short time and helps burn extra fat. There are a couple biological reasons for this:

If you haven’t ingested any carbohydrates before working out, than your body will turn to less accessible resources, such as your fat cells, in search of the nutrients it needs to fuel your metabolism as you exercise. This is why aerobic exercise is important for a short-term metabolic boost.

Without food in your system, it is likely that your strength and performance early in the morning will be lower compared to how your body would behave had you been carboloading all day long. Nevertheless, if you’re grasping for motivation in the morning, than something is better than nothing and a slightly decreased workout intensity will still yield the results you seek.
While an aerobic routine helps elevate your short term metabolism, factoring in a resistance circuit breaks down muscle, which requires fuel to rebuild. The process of muscle regrowth initiates a longer-term metabolic boost that should carry you well through the afternoon.

This should be a no-brainer, but a morning workout obviously necessitates a healthy breakfast afterwards. Ensuring that you get the right mix of protein, fats, and carbs will allow your muscles to rebuild adequately, kick your metabolism up further as it expends energy during digestion, and provide you with the energy you need to function until lunch.

3) Suppress Your Appetite: Food cravings can strike anywhere, anytime, and particularly when driving past In N’ Out Burger. Particularly if you spend a lot of your day inside, around food, or bored, craving something sweet, salty, or fried can quickly mitigate your workout gains. Fortunately, there’s hope on the horizon. A study conducted at Brigham Young University used an EEG machine to measure female cognitive response to pictures of food, and found that the participants responded less to the food images and were more physically active throughout the day on days where they exercised in the morning. Does this mean that you should actively try to eat less? Not necessarily. But typically food cravings manifest themselves as a sweet tooth or a desire for something unhealthy, so it’s important to not confuse a superfluous craving for genuine hunger.

4) Manage Your Weight: Shockingly, exercise has connected to weight loss! As it turns out, morning exercise can help you burn more fat during each session and throughout the day than evening exercise. Thermogenesis is the process by which your body produces heat. Increased thermogenesis (often brought on artificially by weight-loss supplements) contributes to caloric expenditure and therefore weight loss. Think of your metabolism as a fire and your body as a house. The bigger and hotter the fire needs to be, the more fuel is required to fuel it. In structuring your daily exercise regimen, you can use this concept to your advantage. A 2000 study published in Chronobiology International found that our bodies retain heat generated through exercise longer in the morning than in the evening due to the normal circadian rhythm of core temperature. This means that when you work out in the morning, your body stays hotter for longer, requiring more fuel and burning more calories.

Working out in the morning also burns more fat because, assuming you haven’t eaten breakfast yet, there are no other easily bioavailable nutrients for your metabolism to access. The next resort for the body is any excess nutrients stored as fat. In continuing with the house analogy, if you must build a fire, but lack firewood, than the only thing to do is to start burning the house. And if the house just happens to be overflowing with extraneous tables, chairs, saw horses, boxes, and other burnable materials, than this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

5) Manage Your Time: As all of us in Silicon Valley are aware, the demands on our time grow every day. While time management techniques can be subjective, many successful people use a morning exercise regimen as a tactic to maintain equilibrium even while many other aspects of life spiral out of control. Morning exercise is also a lot tougher to justify excusing, because the only other demand on your time is sleep. In the afternoon, there are a million reasons - social obligations, doctor’s appointments, family, last-minute meetings, etc. - that can interfere with a regular exercise routine. In the morning, however, it’s just you and your motivation.

Lastly, getting into a morning exercise routine just plain feels great. It can be very difficult to start, but once habitual, it becomes nearly automatic. Physical exercise increases blood flow throughout the body - including to the brain. A morning job, bike ride, or weightlifting session can be very therapeutic in the early morning where the chaos and intensity of the day are still dormant, allowing you to mentally center yourself without distraction.

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