How working out in the morning changed my pandemic life

Like most people, when COVID-19 started picking up steam in Boston, I assumed it would all be over in a month or so. As someone who typically travels frequently for work, I put on my flexibility hat, and I found solutions to make the quarantine period more enjoyable. The first step was prioritizing my sanity, which required daily exercise to keep my endorphins pumping. I’ve worked out all over the world—a beach in Croatia, a gym on a rooftop in Argentina, a game reserve in South Africa—so I’m no stranger to lacing up the ‘sneaks and figuring it out. However, I’ve never been someone who can wake up bright and early and dive right into an exercise routine.

Until now.

As one month turned into two, I realized that while I was doing some sort of physical activity every day, my energy level was low. And the workouts I gravitated toward were not only below my fitness level (read: too easy), but I only could muster up enough enthusiasm for a 15 or 20-minute session. I voiced my angst to a dear, long-time friend, a few states away in New York City, and she expressed the same desire to find an effective schedule.

As a morning person who often has her first call around 9 a.m., she offered to be my virtual workout buddy and Zoom accountability partner but only if—gasp!—I’d get up at 7 a.m. Desperate for a change and in great need for a killer sweat, I agreed to a one-week challenge.

I’m amazed (and frankly, incredibly surprised) that we’ve now been rising with the sun together for nine weeks. Nine!

We create 45 to 50-minute routines that combine high-intensity-interval training with strength, and we cheer each other on through the interwebs. On a rare morning when she can’t join me, I actually get up on my own accord and complete the workout all by myself. It’s something I look forward to—and it’s been a game-changer in my attitude, productivity and happiness during this tricky time. (Plus seeing your friend’s smiling face first-thing has a way of making you smile, too.)

It took me 31 years to really give A.M. workouts a chance, but it’s a habit I hope to maintain post-pandemic, too. Not only have I figured out I enjoy working out at home, but it’s a stellar way to start your day on a high note. Here, I spoke with a doctor about the benefits of morning sweats, and how you can change your routine, too:

It puts your body into healing mode.

When you’re asleep, you’re not eating. And technically speaking, that means you’re fasting. During this period, your body—and more specifically, your gut—receives a much-needed break. As Dr. Ralph E. Holsworth, D.O., the director of clinical and scientific research for Essentia Water explains, there are basal levels of autophagy occurring in every tissue of our body, but it’s more unregulated in the morning. So, when we wake up and exercise, we’re enhancing autophagy. What’s that? Dr. Holsworth defines autophagy as the self-eating process where a cell breaks down its own damaged components and remakes them. Essentially it’s the cell rejuvenating itself—and is triggered under conditions of nutrient deprivation (aka—not eating!). “That cell rejuvenation is the expected health benefit as the dysfunctional cells—like cancer cells—or dysfunctional cell components tend to be ‘eaten’ first,” he adds.

You are more likely to meet your hydration goals.

During quarantine, I decided to bite the bullet and hire a nutritionist. I had long wondered about food sensitivities, and I wanted a way to eat well and lose weight, but not sacrifice everything I love (like champagne or freshly-baked break from my Danish boyfriend). One of her first nuggets of advice was to make sure the first beverage I consume every morning is water. It seems simple enough, but as an espresso addict, I wake up basically drooling for my java. Working out in the morning has changed this since water is necessary after 20 or so burpees.

Dr. Holsworth says it’s a myth that everyone needs eight glasses of water per day. Instead, it’s a much more personalized number and nuanced by the person. To figure it out, he says we should pay attention to how many times we visit the restroom. “Start by drinking ounces per body weight. So, a 170-pound person would initially drink 170 ounces minimum, and then increase the amount by 10 percent to ensure urination every three hours,” he continues. “Starting a morning workout routine may get you to this hydration goal quicker.”

You’ll eat less.

One of the reasons I was resistant to a morning workout was fear of overeating my breakfast. Since I’m typically starving an hour or so after evening exercise classes, I expected I’d feel the same in the A.M. To my delight; I drink so much water while working out, followed by the coveted coffee as my reward, that I don’t eat for three hours. There’s actually a science to this since one study at Brigham Young University analyzed women’s brain activity as they looked at photos of food and flowers. Yes, a bit strange, but their findings were fascinating: females who worked up a sweat for 45 minutes in the morning weren’t as excited by pictures of grub, while those who didn’t, were. And by following their eating habits for a period of time, those who were morning fitness people ate less than those who weren’t.

You’ll sleep better.

Sleep during the pandemic has been hit or miss for most people, and it’s definitely been true for me. But, since I got into the habit of A.M. exercise, I find myself more naturally tired, without having to reach for melatonin to calm down in the evening. Science backs up this benefit too, since The National Sleep Foundation officially recommended morning sweats for longer, higher-quality and deeper rest. The key is to make sure you have at least 15 hours between when your workout finishes and when you head to bed.

You have the rest of your day.

For me, this is probably the most significant change. Before, I would stress myself to finish every last article assignment, client brief and deliverable by 5 p.m. so I could squeeze in my workout and shower. Depending on the day, this was sometimes nearly impossible, even as a freelancer and entrepreneur who controls her own calendar. By setting my alarm a little earlier and checking ‘exercise’ off my to-do list, I’m no longer bound by the cut-off time. I find myself much more productive, more willing to take a lunch break away from my computer, and overall, more satisfied with my schedule.