When To Work Out? Ask Your Own Body
I recently gave the keynote address to a group of financial advisers at Edward Jones’ annual conference in Phoenix. At the end of my speech, I got a question that’s come up time and time again: “When’s the best time to work out?” It’s a classic conundrum; once people have tackled the old “I don’t have time to exercise excuse (the “dog ate my homework” of reasons not to work out), the next question is, naturally, when to do it.
You’ve got to find a time that works for your schedule, of course. But you’ve also got to find a time that works for your body – and in order to that, you’ve first got to try and understand your body’s own natural energy cycles and rhythms. You’re probably familiar with the terms “larks” and “owls,” and probably know someone (maybe even yourself) who fits the classic description of a morning or night person. Truth is, though, most of us are not extreme larks or tend to rise somewhere between 7 and 8 A.M., get sleepy around ten at night, and fall asleep by midnight, with variations of up to an hour or two either way.
More important is the fact that, whatever hours we keep, we tend to follow a consistent pattern of energy and bodily function over the course of the day. This inner clock is governed by chemical processes in the human body that synchronize themselves to the light-dark cycle of the environment. Coming to terms with your cycle will help you in everything you do.
If you took your temperature every four hours around the clock, you would probably find that it rose and fell by a few tenths of a degree over a twenty-four-hour period. You’d also find that the periods of higher temperature would correspond with periods of higher energy and mental alertness, while the dips in temperature would correspond with sleep, or with that slump period during the day when you feel the need to rest and recharge.
The standard energy cycle for most of us is:
Upon waking: Body temperature and metabolic rate rise.
Midmorning: Highly alert. Best time for activities requiring critical thinking and concentration.
After lunch/early afternoon: Energy and alertness plummet as body temperature drops. For many, an afternoon nap is a refreshing, natural response.
Mid to late afternoon: Body temperature and energy rise again. Mental faculties return.
Late afternoon: Metabolic peak; a good time to exercise and then eat dinner.
After dinner, about two hours before bed: Energy and metabolism drop, melatonin levels rise, preparing us for sleep.
Pre-dawn Deep sleep; body temperature is at its lowest. Studies show that one-vehicle accidents, as well as industrial shift worker accidents, happen during this period.
Most of us have an intuitive sense of our energy profile. Still, it’s uncanny how we try to fight it – to work, eat, or drive when we should be sleeping; or, conversely, to squander our most valuable brain time on activities that could easily be done during less alert periods.
Knowing and, more importantly, respecting your body’s daily energy map is a great way to make yourself more productive, improve the effectiveness of exercise, reduce the likelihood of accidents, improve your sexual performance, and, in general, increase your enjoyment of life.
Yearly Cycles: Don’t Fight ‘Em
I’ve noticed that my energy and motivation are very seasonal. When my daughters were younger, calendar landmarks like the beginning of school, the advent of spring, and the long days of summer were always times when I felt a surge of energy and a desire to be active – and I’ve generally maintained that cycle.
In contrast to these high-energy times, I go through a period of high stress around the winter holidays. During these periods, in the midst of friends and family visiting, all the travel and festivities, it’s all I can do to squeeze in a brief daily yoga practice or walk.
Experience has taught me not to fight my cycles, but rather to expect them, and flow with them. This means taking the emphasis off intensity and just focusing on consistency. Otherwise, I find myself fighting the natural rhythm of my body, trying to push when I haven’t the time or energy. The result is always a crash landing, pangs of guilt, and a longer down phase than I would have had if I’d staged a controlled descent. Truly an out-of-body experience to avoid!
To Push Or Not To Push: The Ten-Minute Test
I never recommend skipping a workout just because you’re feeling low-energy. On the other hand, fatigue might indicate overtraining or a compromised immune system. That’s why I suggest what training expert Jerry Robinson calls the Ten-Minute Test. On those days when you want to work out, but you think you might be feeling a little dizzy, or fluish, or sleepy, simply start your workout and give it all you’ve got for ten minutes. Then check in with your body: Are you feeling better or worse from the exercise? If you can’t honestly say you’re feeling better, stop. Your body probably needs a day off. But don’t skip your workout just because you’re tired.