Growing up, Sundays were for soccer. I wasn't a phenomenal player. I barely cared if my team won or lost. But I loved the game and looked forward to the 60 minutes I spent on the field each week — unless the schedule called for a morning game.
Like many people, I became a night owl when I became a teenager. And, once my circadian rhythms shifted, I began each day in an impenetrable fog. Soccer was a particularly punishing morning activity because it was my body, rather than my mind, that really succumbed to the AM sluggishness. I felt woozy and weak when I tried to exercise and even stepped off the soccer field to dry heave during a few early-morning games. (A charming sight for spectators, I'm sure.) Afternoon athletic endeavors were a different story: Around 1pm or so, my body woke up.
Today, more than a decade later, I'm still a night owl. And morning exercise is still torture. So I've come to embrace nighttime workouts. Some people argue that it's best to avoid exercising late in the day because it interferes with sleep. But, while I don't doubt that there are benefits to breaking a sweat before breakfast, I've decided that exercising at night — running, specifically — is the right choice for me. What are my other options?
I could force myself to endure tedious morning jogs. But I'd run twice as slowly, and for half as long, as I do at night. And running would become an activity I dread, rather than something I relish. I could also slack off and not exercise at all. But, putting aside the many other reasons to stay active, I've found that, when I sit around all day, every day, I don't sleep at night. So, for the sake of calming down my mind and tiring out my body, I need to hit the pavement a few times a week.
That's not to say that after-work workouts never leave me feeling more stimulated than I'd like. Sometimes I do, admittedly, find it hard to wind down after I work out in the evening. But I do wind down eventually. When I skip exercise altogether, on the other hand, I feel sleepy during the day but anxious and restless come bedtime. Overall, not exercising screws up my sleep more than exercising near bedtime does.
The research on sleep and exercise is somewhat murky. My "ain't nothing wrong with a moonlit jog" philosophy may not bear out in every study on lying down and moving around, but it's as scientifically sound as most other positions on the best and worst times of day to work out. Consider a 2013 poll of 1000 people, conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, which found that people who exercised, at any any hour of the day, were between 56 and 67 percent more likely than non-exercisers to say they usually slept well. Poll participants were split into four groups based on how frequently they exercised, as Women's Health reported. And the highest-frequency group (vigorous exercisers) were least likely to report sleep issues; 72 percent of them reported never having symptoms of insomnia.
And a recent meta-analysis (i.e., a study of studies) of the sleep-exercise relationship suggested that both sunrise and sunset exercise improve sleep, but in slightly different ways. As I reported in May:
In one study, researchers looked at various sleep and physiological measures (e.g., melatonin levels, rectal temperature and EEG activity) and determined that exercising early in the day improves the quality of nighttime sleep. But, in another study, exercising 90 minutes before bedtime was associated with increased deep sleep. And a third study found that, regardless of the time of day, resistance training improved sleep quality: Morning training reduced the amount of time it took for participants to fall asleep (a good thing), whereas nighttime training reduced the number of times participants woke up after they fell asleep (also a good thing). In summary? Don't be afraid of working out after work.
I don't need studies to endorse evening jogs in order for me to feel okay about lacing up my sneakers after work. Because, while I absolutely trust science, I also know that there's no fixed formula for getting shuteye. Morning exercise has made me miserable since I was in middle school. And I've been enjoying, and falling asleep after, nighttime runs for the better part of a decade.
But I'm not swearing off morning exercise for the rest of my life. Chronotype (i.e., night owl or morning lark) can change several times over the course of a lifetime. I haven't shed my night owl rhythms yet. But, as I get older, my sleep-and-wake times will most likely shift earlier. It's possible that, at some point, I will naturally wake up with energy to burn. And that would be a welcome change. I'd love to squeeze in a run before work and have free time at night to do whatever I want. If anything, I envy people who start their days with 6am sweat sessions. But, for as long as my circadian clock runs late, I'll keep hitting the pavement in the PM.