How Being Intentional About Timing Can Improve Your Routine

Intentional timing and overall wellness

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Starting a new exercise program—or just trying to stick to the program you're already on—can be challenging. If you're like most people, you have many different responsibilities competing for your time and attention throughout the day. It's easy for exercise (and other healthy lifestyle activities) to drop to the bottom of the list. As a result, you may go several days or much longer without a workout.

So how do you juggle important responsibilities and still maintain your exercise commitment? One of the best ways is to schedule your workouts like you schedule all of your essential tasks. In doing so, you can plan sessions during a time of day when your body is best prepared for a workout, according to scientific evidence.

This type of intentional timing can help you to maximize exercise performance and help you to reach your fitness and lifestyle goals.

Benefits of Scheduled Exercise

Researchers and health experts know that a consistent routine is key to developing a healthy lifestyle.??

For example, while going out for a walk after dinner can provide benefits if you do it just once, a regular habit of after-dinner walks is likely to have greater potential in improving or maintaining your health. Sometimes, however, creating a healthy routine is challenging.

In order to turn single or random healthy activities into a habit, the activity needs to be repeated on a regular basis—it needs to become routine.

What Is a Routine?

Routine is defined as "a repeated behavior involving a momentary time commitment task that requires little conscious thought." These are the activities that we do throughout the day that we don't question—we just do them.

Implementation of a lifestyle change implies that a routine is followed and habits are formed.??

Researchers have found that routine is important for both adults and children and it is important for healthy living. Observational research has shown that individuals who are in good health engage in highly routine health behaviors.?? Healthy lifestyle routines generally include the habitual consumption of nutritious foods, regular physical activity, and consistent sleep.

But at some point, these healthy routines need to form. For instance, we aren't born with an innate desire to take an early morning spin class or to eat green leafy vegetables every day.

We make a decision to adopt these behaviors and then we need to form the routine—which can take a long time. In fact, some research has suggested that it takes about 66 days to form a healthy habit. And if the healthy habit involves exercise it can take 1.5 times longer.??

So how do you make the routine-building process more efficient and effective? Experts say that scheduling is one method that is highly effective. Scheduling your workout—or healthy activity—is effective because it reduces choice, and choice can be problematic.

When presented with a choice, we are usually more likely to pick the option that is easiest, quickest, and most enjoyable. Exercise is generally not described as easy or quick and for many people, it's not enjoyable.

When you build a routine with scheduling, you reduce the impact of choice. There is no moment where you need to make a decision, you simply follow your routine as if on autopilot.

Of course, you may want to make a decision. A schedule isn't ironclad. But having a schedule in place can make autopilot mode easier to adopt.

Exercise experts, including trainers and health coaches, know that building a routine is one way to achieve goals.

According to Teddy Savage, Planet Fitness’ Head of Health & Fitness Excellence explains that there are both physical and mental benefits that can be gained with routine-building.

Savage says, "Getting your mind and body into a consistent routine will create muscle memory as well as a mindset that is more focused and zeroed in on the workout to come. The feeling you enjoy from completing a scheduled routine consistently can be almost euphoric." He also acknowledges that "scheduling is a key to success."

Teddy Savage, Planet Fitness’ Head of Health & Fitness Excellence

In my experience with fitness and in life, it’s always better to have something planned and, if circumstances change, then adjust as needed. Having something scheduled, even tentatively, usually helps you stick to a routine.

— Teddy Savage, Planet Fitness’ Head of Health & Fitness Excellence

When Is the Best Time to Exercise?

Once you've decided that scheduling your workouts is important, the next step is to decide when you are going to exercise. There is quite a bit of research investigating the relationship between exercise performance and the time of day.

Researchers know that the human body is dependent on biological rhythms that affect both mental and physical activity in youth and adults. In fact, studies have shown that time-of-day affects performance in a range of sports, including time trials in cycling, rowing, swimming, shot put, badminton, football, and tennis.??

The variation in performance may be due to several different factors including hormonal changes throughout the day, core body temperature, or joint and muscle preparedness.?? The type of exercise can also play a role in when you should schedule your workout.

Best Time For High-Intensity Exercise

If you participate in exercise that involves short-term maximal performances, (HIIT workouts, intermittent exercises, or other very brief all-out efforts) studies have suggested that your performance is likely to be better between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. than it is in the morning. In fact, some studies have even shown that performance on certain physical tests is often at its lowest between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.??

For instance, the Wingate test is a well-known performance test that measures peak anaerobic power and anaerobic capacity.

One research review indicated that in different studies investigating the Wingate test, it has been well documented that peak performances fluctuate according to the time of day. Afternoon and early evening performance tended to have the highest values and morning performance had the lowest values.??

One suggestion about this time-of-day variation is related to neuromuscular performance. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, neuromuscular efficiency (also called NME) is your body's ability to engage your muscles to efficiently work together in all planes of motion. NME requires your central nervous system to recruit muscles to produce power and complete a task.??

For example, if you are doing a workout that includes sprinting, you'll sprint faster when your nervous system can efficiently recruit the strong muscles in your lower body to move with greater power and force.

Research has indicated that neuromuscular performance is lower in the morning compared with the afternoon and evening.??

Another common suggestion is that core body temperature plays an important role in performance fluctuations throughout the day.

Your core temperature is lower in the morning and peaks later in the afternoon. This may provide a passive warm-up effect which can enhance metabolic reactions, and improve muscular function. In fact, experiments have shown that the body's power output is decreased by 5% for every 1 degree Celsius decline in muscle temperature.??

One more suggestion is that your muscles and joints are better prepared for activity later in the day. For example, some studies have suggested that simply using your muscles all day long changes the way they function—making them more compliant in the evening hours.??

Best Time for Endurance Exercise

Endurance exercise includes workouts that are longer in duration (an hour or longer) and are generally aerobic as opposed to anaerobic. That is, they are less intense are usually described as moderate intensity workouts.??

Some studies have shown morning exercise to be more effective than late day or evening exercise when the exercise is aerobic (moderate intensity).?? But researchers usually don’t see time-of-day differences when moderate-intensity, long-duration exercise is involved.

Studies suggest that an athlete's VO2max, maximal heart rate, and ventilatory thresholds (the point at which your breathing becomes difficult) generally don’t fluctuate throughout the day.?? These three factors heavily influence performance in endurance workouts.??

Studies have also suggested that ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) are not affected by the time of day when long duration workouts are below the ventilatory threshold (the point at which your workout is hard enough that your breathing becomes labored).??

If your endurance workouts include running or cycling, it is also helpful to note that running-cycling economy (your ability to use less energy for sustained activity) has not been shown to fluctuate during the day. ??

But keep in mind that there can be variations in the intensity of long-duration exercise depending on performance goals. Not all long-duration exercise is truly moderate.

For example, competitive athletes may participate in longer workout sessions that are at or above their ventilatory threshold. Some studies have suggested that your rating of perceived exertion (how hard you think you are working) during long-duration workouts that are at or above ventilatory threshold tends to be higher in the morning.??

However, there have been some laboratory tests that have indicated that your time-to-exhaustion may be shorter in the morning than it is in the evening.

Time-to-exhaustion is the point during your workout when you choose to give up. Scientists suggest that this effect may be due to the fact that test subjects are more reluctant to exercise to voluntary exhaustion during low points in arousal and arousal is lower in the morning.??

Best Time for Weight Training

For weight training, there is very little evidence regarding the best time of day. Few studies have investigated how morning, afternoon, or evening training may impact resistance-trained athletes.

The small number of studies available suggest that training during a certain time of day may be best for improving your performance most effectively at that specific time of day.

For example, one study showed that people who trained in the evening hours improved their performances only in the evening. However, people who trained in the morning hours improved their muscular power in the morning and in the evening.??

For resistance athletes, the best time of day to exercise may be the morning for most exercisers. But if you are a high-level athlete who competes in weight training events, there are other factors to consider. Most importantly, the time of your competition should be factored in when deciding when to train.

Other Factors to Consider

While scientists can provide evidence about the different ways that time-of-day may influence your performance, there are other factors to consider when deciding the best time for you to exercise.

Competition Time

If you are a competitive athlete at any level, the time of your events should be factored in when you are deciding when to exercise. While training at a certain time of day may offer some initial performance advantages, you may find yourself ill-prepared on event day if your competition is at a different time of day.

For example, if you are a sprinter and you do all of your training in the evening, your body (and your mind) may not be adequately prepared for an early morning track meet.

Studies have shown that you can overcome the impact that the time of day has on your workout performance by training consistently at a different time.?? In fact, you can change your response to exercise if you prefer to (or need to) exercise in the morning.

Studies show that when trying to increase your anaerobic threshold, about 6 weeks of training in the morning can train it to be higher in the morning than in the evening.??

So, if you're a marathon runner and your upcoming event is in the morning (as most are) then there are advantages to training in the morning for at least some of your workouts.

You can train your body to perform well at that time, and you can also learn to find the best sleep and pre-race fuel strategy by training at the same time as the competition.

Personal Priority and Self-Care

There may be benefits to morning exercise that are not indicated by physiological studies. For example, you may feel better if you take care of your own needs first in the morning before turning your attention to the needs of others (work, family, etc).

In fact, in many situations, we are advised to help ourselves before helping others. Anyone who has flown on an airplane knows that you put on your own oxygen mask before assisting your travel mates with theirs.

If peak performance is a priority and it competes with your desire to exercise in the morning, there are still ways around it. For instance, studies have shown that exposure to warm, humid environments can help to increase short-term maximal performance in the morning. Exposing your body to heat helps to offset the lower body temperature and the effect it might have on exercise performance.??

Potential For Reduced Willpower

Many people schedule exercise in the morning because they know they are more likely to get it done when there are fewer competing interests. For many people, as the day progresses so do the number of complications, interruptions, and reasons not to exercise. And in fact, some research suggests that willpower is strongest in the morning. Experts say that energy gets "spent" on other issues as the day progresses.??

Experts also acknowledge the impact of "decision fatigue."?? That is, as we make more and more decisions throughout the day, our stress level increases, and difficult decisions become harder to make. And as previously indicated, we are programmed to choose the easiest, most comfortable option when given a choice.

One study, conducted in 2019 found that when 51 overweight young women were studied, morning exercisers were more likely to complete their workouts than late day exercisers. Study authors did not cite a specific reason why morning exercise was more likely to be completed, but they noted that weight loss was greater in the morning exercise group.??

Lifestyle and Schedule

Most importantly, your training schedule needs to be personalized according to your schedule. According to Teddy Savage, one of the greatest things about fitness is that the "best option" is different for everybody. Everyone's schedule is unique.

While he acknowledges that late afternoon and early evening have been established as an optimal time, you need to exercise when your mind is ready, your muscles are prepared, and your body is properly fueled.

Teddy Savage, Planet Fitness’ Head of Health & Fitness Excellence

I tell Planet Fitness members who are just starting out to find a timeframe that allows them to have a pre-workout meal (small in size yet packed with essential nutrients), a pre- and post-workout stretch, and a light to moderate workout in between. In regards to when that timeframe falls in the span of a 24-hour day, it’s totally up to their unique schedule.

— Teddy Savage, Planet Fitness’ Head of Health & Fitness Excellence

Studies involving people who have obesity or are overweight indicate that both morning and evening can be effective. Researchers suggest that there really is no "right" time to exercise.??

How to Schedule Exercise

It can be helpful to take one day each week to sit down with a calendar and schedule your workouts. This intentional timing session can help you to find time slots, dedicate them to exercise, and then maintain that commitment as other opportunities or interests arise.

Protect those timeslots like you would protect any other important commitment. Use these tips when creating your schedule and building a routine.

Write It Out

Many people find that writing out their workout schedule is more effective than mentally committing to a particular timeslot or even using an app to schedule the session.

A paper schedule offers a certain degree of accountability because it's a form of a contract—it is your intentions in writing. If you can post the schedule in a place where you see it everyday it will also serve as a regular reminder of your commitment.

Reflect and Adjust

As you move through your weekly schedule be mindful of how the exercise sessions feel. Do you feel energized? Competitive? Exhausted? Hungry? Stressed? Tired? Also note if you skip sessions and the reasons why. Then as you create your schedule for the following week, make adjustments as needed.

For instance, if you notice that you have a hard time completing your 6 p.m. workout, you may want to consider the reasons why. Perhaps you need a late-afternoon snack to provide more energy for the exercise session.

If you are an early morning riser, your energy may be depleted by early evening. If that is the case, think about a noon workout. If stress gets the best of you and peaks at 6 p.m., a morning workout may be more enjoyable.

Try to stay flexible and make adjustments based on your needs and your lifestyle.

Find Support

Scheduling workouts can make it easier to get support and increase accountability. For example, if you usually go for a run in the morning but you notice that you sometimes skip the workout to complete other tasks, having a running partner may help you to stick to your commitment.

Connect with a friend who has similar goals and schedule a time that works for both of you, then commit to holding each other accountable.

Increase Exercise Options

You can use workout schedules at your local gym or boutique fitness studio to become intentional about scheduling workouts. In many cases, you have to sign up for a spot and pay in advance. Not only do you have to schedule the workout session, but you also have to remind yourself to reserve a spot. If you're interested in classes, get schedules in advance so you know when to make a reservation and when the classes are held.

Intentional Timing for Overall Wellness

You can build routines for other wellness activities to increase your overall health and fitness. Once you get into the habit of scheduling exercise, consider scheduling activities that can help to support your fitness routine.

For instance, for optimal performance during workouts, time your meals and snacks so that you have the energy you need to exercise but you don't feel full and weighed down. Timing meals and snacks can also help you to avoid stomach cramps during activities like running.

Having a sleep schedule can also help you to approach your workouts with more energy. Having an intentional sleep schedule can also help you to maintain good health.

Studies have shown that an irregular sleep schedule is associated with a higher risk of metabolic disorders,?? poor academic performance, ?? and even a higher risk of heart disease.??

A regular sleep schedule that includes 7–8 hours of rest, however, can help protect your health.??

A Word From Verywell

While the scientific evidence regarding the timing of your workouts can seem overwhelming, there is no need to be intimidated. Your workout schedule doesn't need to be perfect. And you don't have to tackle every aspect of your fitness journey at the same time.

Start small, make adjustments as needed, and build on your success. "Schedule bite-size portions of time out of your day that make sense for your life, that won’t add stress to you mentally," says Terry Savage. "Whether it’s the beginning of the day, afternoon, or evening, you should feel like the routine is both doable and realistic. This usually leads to a happier, stress-free you."

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