What’s the best time to work out in the evening?

When it comes to maximizing the benefits of exercise, timing is everything. Early morning workouts may be ideal for burning calories, but an evening session seems to be the key for sleepless nights—with some caveats.

Why to work out close to bedtime

A new study conducted by researchers at Concordia University, and published in Sleep Medicine Reviews, suggests that intense bouts of physical activity performed two hours before bedtime can promote sleep duration and prevent wakefulness for sedentary people and night owls.

“Overall, our analysis showed that when exercise ended two hours before bedtime, there were sleep benefits, including the promotion of sleep onset and increased sleep duration,” the authors wrote.

“On the other hand, when exercise ended less than two hours before bedtime, sleep was negatively impacted. It took longer for participants to fall asleep and sleep duration decreased.”

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription

All of the results indexed above were further influenced by workout intensity and type, as well as the fitness of the subject and the times of day at which they were the most productive. The aforementioned factors also affected different aspects of sleep.

For instance, high-intensity exercise performed in the early evening (between 6 PM and 9 PM) promoted sleep onset and improved sleep duration specifically for all of the participants involved to some degree.

REM Sleep

However, high-intensity exercise was also found to decrease the rapid-eye-movement (REM) stage of sleep, which is the stage associated with dreaming, bodily movement, and faster pulse and breathing, regardless of when they were performed.

“Studies suggests that decreases in REM sleep can impact cognitive tasks negatively if the information is complex and emotionally stimulating but not if the information is easy or neutral,” Emmanuel Frimpong, a postdoctoral fellow at the Sleep, Cognition and Neuroimaging Lab and the study’s lead author, explained in a media release.

Sedentary participants enjoyed the most pronounced sleep benefits from early evening workouts, though cycling was determined to be the most effective type of workout for all parties involved.

“Based on our review, for healthy, young and middle-aged adults with no history of sleep disorders, evening exercises should be performed in the early evening if possible,” Frimpong continued.

“Individuals should also keep to a consistent exercise schedule, as exercising at different times of the evening could cause sleep disturbances,” said Frimpong. “Individuals should also consider whether they are morning people or evening people. High-intensity exercise performed late in the evening can result in sleep disturbance for morning-type people.”

Which sleep type are you?

There are four main chronotypes exhibited by humans, according to clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus. Only two are relevant with respect to Frimpong’s analysis. 

Lions are people who are the most productive between the early hours of the day and noon. These may be hurt by early evening high-intensity workouts.

Wolves describe people who are generally more active at night. This demographic could benefit from high-intensity workouts no less than two hours before their bedtime.

“Lastly, sleep hygiene strategies should also be carried out, such as taking a shower between the cessation of exercise and bedtime and avoiding eating heavy meals or drinking a lot of water before going to bed,” the authors of the new report concluded.

Learn more about your chronotype here.