Morning people can be the worst. They’re chipper far too early, derive their energy from someplace other than coffee, and by the time you’ve accomplished getting dressed, they’ve crossed off half their to-do list. They’re the goody-two-shoes of daily habits.
In a blow to night owls, new evidence suggests that early risers may have a metabolic advantage that even prevents one of the most common chronic illnesses. Published this week in the journal Experimental Physiology, a study from Rutgers University found that being a night owl raises the risk of insulin resistance.
Science in action — The technical classification for one’s active hours is their chronotype. This study looked at 51 adults, dividing them into early chronotypes and late chronotypes based on Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaires each participant filled out. Early risers tended to go to bed before 11 p.m., while night owls stayed up until at least 1 a.m.
All participants also had metabolic syndrome, also known as insulin resistance syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions that together raise one’s risk for stroke, diabetes, heart disease, and others. Some concurrent conditions are high blood pressure, high sugar levels, and high triglyceride levels, which are fat in the blood that can increase cholesterol.
The Rutgers team also collected participants’ blood after an overnight fast, and measured both their waist circumference — one possible indicator of metabolic syndrome — and blood pressure to account for blood sugar levels and other characteristics of metabolic syndrome that could be influenced by rising time. Participants also sported an accelerometer for at least four days.
Why it’s a hack — The team found that independent of fitness, early risers metabolized more fat during fasts and exercise than night owls.
“We wanted to see what’s going on with their metabolism, both during the rested or fasted state, in addition to during exercise or movement,” lead author Steven Malin, an endocrinology and metabolic health professor at Rutgers, tells Inverse. “The principal finding became, ‘Wow, the later chronotype used less fat, regardless of the state,’ so they use less fat when they fasted, and they use less fat at moderate or high-intensity exercise.”
Malin’s team looked at the delicate balance of metabolizing fat during rest and exercise, as well as alignment to one’s circadian rhythm, or internal body clock. A previous Longevity Hack looked at a study that analyzed how eating during daytime and nighttime influenced the emotional states of those who worked all night.
Early birds also seemed more active in general. They wouldn’t necessarily exercise first thing in the morning, but they’d begin chores early and do light activities. Malin says this consistent, early activity may be boosting their metabolism and ability to respond to insulin.
There’s some data that suggests why it might be that night owls metabolize less even during exercise. One culprit may be everyone’s favorite powerhouse of the cell, the mitochondria. Malin says there’s evidence that the mitochondria in people with diabetes, or even with a family history of diabetes, don’t function as well as those in healthy people. That could, in part, come from producing less energy.
There may also be a vascular component, relating to how the heart pumps blood throughout the body. The body’s ability to pump blood from the heart is often bolstered by exercise, so a sedentary lifestyle could hinder that.
“What this is suggesting is these risk profiles have lower fat metabolism, and less ability to store glucose as energy coupled with less physical activity, lower fitness levels, they’re all suggestive of risk factors for diabetes and heart disease,” Malin says.
How it affects longevity — Type 1 diabetes is a genetic condition that often appears in adolescence. Type 2 comes from insulin resistance over time.
Malin emphasizes that he’s not proscribing any one lifestyle. Night owls have every right to stay up late. But, he does recommend more movement in general — for everyone. Even going to bed 15 minutes earlier, and waking up 15 minutes earlier, just to do some laps around the couch or go for a walk can be enough to jumpstart the body’s metabolism and get some movement in.
“The more movement we can have, the better our health,” he says. “We see the greatest drops in mortality risks, cardiovascular disease, and so forth, going from being very inactive to being active.”
Hack score out of 10 — 🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉(5/10 night owls who exercise regularly without sacrificing their preferred habit)