A new study has found that working out first thing in the morning is the absolute healthiest time of day to get fit — on an empty stomach no less — because it both burns fat best in the moment, and alters fat cells for future better health later, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. Sounds like a win-win, but before you drastically alter your day and dining schedule to accommodate this research, remember that if you’re working out at all, even at 4:27 a.m. after eating a bowl of lard topped with candy sprinkles, you’re doing great. After all, the CDC has found that some 80 percent of Americans don’t exercise enough—and a quarter never exercise at all.)
That’s because dragging your ass to a gym or into workout clothes is hard enough what with having to work, eat and keep up with new Game of Thrones plots, so it’s difficult to believe that anyone does so at a certain time of day because science told us to, as opposed to when it’s most convenient. Nonetheless, science has looked into this perennial question and continues to come up with some hard answers. It’s true, the answers all contradict each other, but in this case, that’s a good thing, because it inadvertently proves that literally any movement is better than none.
In the Morning. It’s best to work out in the morning because you get it out of the way; it boosts your energy all day long; and it gets your metabolism cranking. It also makes it easier to sleep at night and choose healthier food options all day long, resulting in better long-term benefits.
In the Afternoon. You should work out in the afternoon because exercise affects your circadian rhythm, and if you do so midday, it can help strengthen your internal clock, which affects not just your energy and ability to sleep better, but also ward off diseases like cancer, diabetes or depression.
At Night. Nighttime workouts are the most maligned of the bunch because they theoretically cause insomnia, but some research has shown that you can work out longer and harder at night, because your muscles take in more oxygen. This means you’ll tone up faster, and like all exercise, sleep better.
In other words, it’s the what, and not the when, that matters most: Getting some cardio three times a week will improve your overall health whether you can do that before or after the sun comes up. The American Heart Association backs this up, advising that the best time of day to work out is whenever you damn well can, because carving out time to get your heart rate up is based on what they call a constellation of factors: “Location, time of day, type of physical activity, social setting, among others.”
In this case, let’s interpret “among others” this way: While science is great and everything, fine-tuning your diet, exercise routine and entire life schedule for what’s probably a negligible boost—in other words, a whole lot of work for what, in reality, probably only improves your health at the margins—is a luxury for only the most truly devoted exerciser or athlete. Most of us are just lucky to find the energy and time for an hour once in a while to get the hell up and move.