Finding time to incorporate exercise into your daily routine can be a challenge. In fact, while the reasons that people don’t engage in physical activity are numerous and complex, there’s no question that “lack of time” is one of the most commonly cited limiting factors.1
Often, we push off exercise until later in the day, and as you’ve surely experienced, as the day wears on, we tend to have less control as external chaos typically ensues. You have to fight unexpected fires at work. Your kids have after-school events. Your partner needs you to run an errand. Not to mention that after a long, stressful day of work, energy and motivation have both waned.
And while there may not be a universal “best” time to exercise, for all these reasons, I suggest trying to find time in the morning—when you have greater control—before you dive into the rest of your day. Scratch that. I encourage you to schedule time for exercise first thing in the morning before you attack the rest of your day.
As Craig Ballantyne, author of The Perfect Day Formula, would say, “Control your mornings, and you will win your days.” Even more, exercising in the morning can prime both your brain and your body for optimal performance throughout the day.
Having said that, if you’re not a morning exerciser (or a morning person for that matter), the transition can be a little tricky. Here are some of my top tips to make it happen.
Start with a Proper Pre-Game Meal
What you eat the night before a morning sweat session can have a tremendous impact on how you feel and perform when you hit the gym. If you stuffed yourself with leftover meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and garlic bread before hitting the sack, there’s a good chance you’ll wake up a good example of the old axiom “you are what you eat”—feeling like a sluggish loaf of meat.
And contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to “carb up” at your evening pre-workout meal. In fact, recent studies show that “training low” (meaning that you exercise with low carbohydrate availability) may have significant health and endurance benefits, such as increased mitochondrial biogenesis.2,3 One of the best examples of training low is morning exercise following overnight carbohydrate restriction, which is also referred to as “sleeping low.”
With that in mind, make it a point to eat lean protein, veggies, and healthy fats so you wake up feeling replenished and satisfied—not lethargic, bloated, and gross.
Tip: Be sure to finish up your last meal at least 90 minutes before you hit the sack.
Reverse Engineer Your Morning
If you’re going to start exercising in the morning, chances are you’ll need to start getting up a little bit earlier. Want to know one of the best ways to get up earlier? Go to bed earlier.
That’s right, in order to make sure you’ll still getting the 7 – 9 hours of sleep recommended by expert organizations such as the National Sleep Foundation, you’ve got to reverse engineer your day. Instead of cutting into your sleep time, set an earlier bed time.
Now, to do this, you’ll need to “hack” your body’s internal biological clock—your circadian rhythms, which basically refers to your body’s 24-hour internal clock also often referred to as the sleep/wake cycle. When you “hack” your circadian rhythms, you not only make waking up in the morning easier, you also ensure that you get better, more restorative sleep.
Arguably one of the biggest factors disrupting circadian rhythms is our excessive exposure to blue light in the evening, which is ubiquitous in fluorescent lightbulbs, cell phones, tablets, computer monitors, TV screens, and more. Blue light suppresses melatonin production, delaying feelings of sleepiness and the onset of our nighttime sleep cycle. With that in mind, 2 – 3 hours before bed, avoid or limit your use of phone, computer, and TV screens. Dim your lights and/or use amber-tinted light bulbs. You can also download apps like f.lux for your computer, and you can wear amber-tinted, blue-light-blocking glasses at night.
On the other side of the coin, getting sunlight exposure in the morning is one of the most powerful strategies for setting your circadian clock. In fact, lack of sunlight exposure may shoulder even more blame for circadian disturbances than excessive artificial blue light exposure.
Tip: Snack on melatonin-rich foods such as walnuts, cherries, or kiwifruit before bed.
Get a Workout Buddy
Two of the single most important, yet overlooked, variables that are fundamental for behavior change and increasing adherence to an exercise program are accountability to others and social support.4,5 How can you get more of both? Find yourself a workout partner.
You don’t have to post an ad on Craigslist or post a tear-off flyer at the gym. Chances are you have a friend who either already gets up in the morning to work out or wants to start doing it. In the case of the latter, you’re in the same boat, and you can help each other.
Make plans to meet at the gym and commit to the plan. You’ll be less likely to bail when you know someone is waiting for you. On top of that, you’ll benefit from the added bonus of social interaction, and there’s a good chance that you’ll train harder when you have a partner.
If a workout partner doesn’t float your boat, you have other options. For instance, you can hire a personal trainer, and you can either work out one-on-one or in a small group. While this may be a little more expensive, in addition to accountability, you’ll have the added benefit of expert guidance in your training program. Another great option is to sign up for a class at the gym.
Stir Up Excitement
Most people know that the benefits of regular exercise are numerous and comprehensive. However, you can’t reap the rewards if you’re not consistent. Many scientists dedicate their lives’ work to uncovering ways to increase compliance. After all, it’s often said that “poor adherence represents the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of lifestyle weight management interventions in particular.”6
While there are several ways to overcome the internal and external barriers that can hold us back from regular exercise, one thing that you can do is to stir up some excitement. When you look forward to your workout, you’re obviously more inclined to do it.
There are many ways you can stir it up. For starters, plan a workout that you actually enjoy. If you’re not a big fan of lifting weights but love playing sports, join a racquetball or handball league. If you’re into lifting weights, set a goal and commit to a program. Review your workout the night before and visualize yourself succeeding.
Create a new playlist. Try a group class at the gym. Take run, bike ride, or hike outside. Depending on where you live, consider trying rowing or stand-up paddleboarding. The options are endless. If you can make exercise fun, relevant, and important to you, chances are you’ll be excited about it and stick to your program.
Shape Your Path
In the seminal book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath talk about human behavior using a metaphor of a rider and an elephant. Basically, the Heath brothers suggest that the rider is like our rational, analytical brain while the much stronger, overpowering elephant represents our emotional, irrational, and automatic side. As you can imagine, even when we “know” something is right, we’re often overtaken by our inner elephant.
There’s a third component to the Heath brothers’ metaphor: The path, which the elephant diligently follows. In the metaphor, the path refers to our environment, and along these lines, we have to guide our inner elephant by shaping our paths for success.
Along those lines, the less you have to think about (and the fewer the obstacles in your way) when the alarm goes off, the better. Get your workout clothes and shoes out the night before. Program your coffee pot to start brewing when your alarm goes off. If you feel like you need a pre- or post-workout snack or shake, have it ready-to-consume.
Own the Day
If you’ve been struggling to consistently incorporate exercise into your daily routine, I urge you to schedule time in the morning for it. Commit to it for at least four weeks and focus solely on that change; don’t worry about making any other changes. If it sounds daunting, consider implementing the tips I outlined above. Ultimately, you have to decide to jump on board, commit to it, and own the day!
- Trost SG, Owen N, Bauman AE, Sallis JF, Brown W. Correlates of adults’ participation in physical activity: review and update. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002;34(12):1996-2001. doi:10.1249/01.MSS.0000038974.76900.92.
- Bartlett JD, Hawley JA, Morton JP. Carbohydrate availability and exercise training adaptation: too much of a good thing? Eur J Sport Sci. 2015;15(1):3-12. doi:10.1080/17461391.2014.920926.
- Marquet L-A, Brisswalter J, Louis J, et al. Enhanced Endurance Performance by Periodization of Carbohydrate Intake: “Sleep Low” Strategy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(4):663-672. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000823.
- Mohr DC, Cuijpers P, Lehman K. Supportive Accountability: A Model for Providing Human Support to Enhance Adherence to eHealth Interventions. J Med Internet Res. 2011;13(1). doi:10.2196/jmir.1602.
- Montesi L, El Ghoch M, Brodosi L, Calugi S, Marchesini G, Dalle Grave R. Long-term weight loss maintenance for obesity: a multidisciplinary approach. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes Targets Ther. 2016;9:37-46. doi:10.2147/DMSO.S89836.
- Middleton KR, Anton SD, Perri MG. Long-Term Adherence to Health Behavior Change. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2013;7(6):395-404. doi:10.1177/1559827613488867.