Working Out at a Certain Time of Day Makes Forming an Exercise Habit Easier

The key to a successful exercise habit is "automaticity."

There’s mixed evidence on what time of day is “the best” for working out. Mornings and evenings both offer their own benefits, though it depends on what you’re looking to get out of an exercise routine. Regardless of your goals, however, a new paper in Obesity suggests that timing your workouts really does matter — and that there may be something to the morning exercise grind.

Led by professor of psychiatry and human behavior Dale Bond, Ph.D., of the Brown Alpert Medical School, the study reveals a link between the time of a day that a person exercises and their ability to keep up a consistent workout routine.

His survey of 375 adults who had maintained at least 30 pounds of weight loss for a full year revealed two things about people with solid exercise routines (at least 2 days per week in this study). First, 68 percent of those subjects typically worked out at the same time each day. Second, nearly half (47.8 percent) of the people who had consistent routines worked out in the early morning instead of the late morning, afternoon, or evening.

morning workouts, exercise
Over 47 percent of people who had lost at least 30 pounds performed regular morning workouts, though time of day may be less important than consistency, these authors suggest. 

Does this mean that there’s something particularly special about morning workouts that makes them easier to stick with? The short answer is maybe. Prior work in tandem with the new findings suggest “that performing PA [physical activity] in the early morning may be helpful for maintaining a regular PA routine,” the authors write.

The time of day, however, is not the only thing to consider when forming a truly lasting exercise habit. In addition, the authors point to the importance of a factor they call “automaticity.”

How “Automaticity” Relates to Exercise Habits

These authors define automaticity as “performance with lowered conscious awareness or volition.” It’s the feeling that there’s something that drags you out of bed and out into the park each morning, even if your conscious brain can’t quite get a handle on what that is.

This “automaticity” feeling has also been described in several previous studies, including a 2016 systematic review in Health Psychology Review. Those authors concluded that “overall, it is evident that physical activity is partially regulated by non-conscious processes.”

In the new paper, the team writes that “priming,” or cues, are a good way to get these non-conscious processes flowing. “For example, through consistently exercising immediately after work, leaving work may become paired with going to the gym,” they write. Over time, they posit, priming this can lead to reductions in the amount of day-to-day attention, effort, and motivation that you need to muster to get a workout in.

In the sample of people they studied, automaticity had powerful ties to forming an exercise routine. There was a statistically significant relationship between individuals who reported greater levels of automaticity and the number of days that they exercised per week.

The relationship also held for people who maintained certain cues related to automaticity. Doing the same type of exercise in the same location and at the same time of day showed strong ties to having a regular exercise routine. But time-based cues were particularly important.

Performing exercise at the same time of day, or at the same point in a daily routine (right after work, for instance), was linked with both having a regular routine and performing more minutes of exercise per week. That suggests that timing may play a weightier role than other cues, the authors note. But time of day, they add, is probably less important that having a consistent routine

“Taken together, our findings suggest that exercising at the same time of day, regardless of whether it is during the morning, afternoon, or evening, may help with achieving higher PA levels,” the team writes.

Since this is a survey study, they cannot draw any conclusions about causality. But as it stands, their early-stage findings put forth a clear message: Exercising at the same time of day may be a good first step towards forming a habit — regardless of what time of day it is.

Abstract:

Objective: This study aimed to evaluate whether consistency in time of day that moderate- to vigorous- intensity physical activity (MVPA) is performed relates to MVPA levels among successful weight loss main- tainers in the National Weight Control Registry.

Methods: Participants (n=375) reporting MVPA on≥2 d/wk completed measures of temporal consistency in physical activity (PA) (>50% of MVPA sessions per week occurring during the same time window: early/ late morning, afternoon, or evening), PA levels, PA automaticity, and consistency in cues underlying PA habit formation (e.g., location).

Results: Most (68.0%) participants reported temporally consistent MVPA. These individuals reported higher MVPA frequency (4.8±1.6 vs. 4.4±1.5 d/wk; P=0.007) and duration (median [IQR]: 350.0 [200.0-510.0] vs. 285.0 [140.0-460.0] min/wk; P=0.03), and they were more likely to achieve the national MVPA guideline (≥ 150 min/wk) than temporally inconsistent exercisers (86.3% vs. 74.2%, P = 0.004). Among temporally con- sistent exercisers, 47.8% were early-morning exercisers; MVPA levels did not differ by time of day of routine MVPA performance (P>0.05). Greater automaticity and consistency in several cues were related to greater MVPA among all participants.

Conclusions: Most participants reported consistent timing of MVPA. Temporal consistency was associated with greater MVPA, regardless of the specific time of day of routine MVPA performance. Consistency in exer- cise timing and other cues might help explain characteristic high PA levels among successful maintainers.