Much research has been done on whether there’s an ‘optimal’ time to work out, but does workout timing have any impact on our metabolic health? Writer Claire Munnings investigates…
Firing up our metabolism is one reason many of us hit the gym or pound the pavements. After all, having a well-functioning metabolism – and encouraging our body to use fuel as efficiently as possible – is a cornerstone to a healthy, strong body.
So if the experts thought it could be possible to time your workouts to gain the greatest metabolic boost, we’re betting you’d be keen to know more.
Interestingly, a new study published last month has added fuel to the idea this may be the case. After observing the behaviour of mice, researchers from the Karolinska Institutet and the University of Copenhagen found that working out in the morning could be more effective than late-evening exercise in terms of supporting metabolic health.
So does this mean we should all be pulling on our trainers first thing? Well, not exactly. In truth, it’s a little more complicated than that.
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How do we ‘boost’ our metabolism with exercise?
Before we get too into the nitty-gritty, let’s look at what ‘metabolism boosting’ actually means. Our metabolism relates to the process by which our body converts food and drink into energy, or how we break down calories for energy.
As GP and personal trainer Dr Folusha Oluwajana tells Stylist, we can speed up (or ‘boost’) our metabolism to burn more fuel in a given time frame by exercising. Exercise requires energy, so we’re essentially forcing our body to give us what we need at a quicker pace (which is the connection between ‘fat burning’ and ‘metabolism boosting’).
But we can also talk about boosting (or improving) our overall metabolic health in general, too. And this is what’s really important. Our body relies on the process of metabolism in order to be able to fulfil its different functions. It sounds obvious, but without energy, our body wouldn’t be able to breathe, look after our cells, circulate blood, and everything else it does without us even thinking.
So having good metabolic health and a metabolism which works effectively is essential for many reasons, and exercise can help hugely on this front.
Regular movement throughout the day
“Fitness is the key to optimal metabolic health,” explains biohacker Dr Molly Maloof, who’s currently working with Lumen, a metabolism measuring device. “Firstly, we need NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) to optimise our baseline metabolism (the minimal amount of energy needed for basic functions). This means walking and moving regularly, and not being too sedentary in our daily lives.”
We also need cardiovascular exercise to work the heart, so we can boost our body’s oxygen-carrying capacity. “This is important because our mitochondria use oxygen to burn food as fuel,” explains Dr Maloof. “So, the more oxygen we can carry, the better our metabolism will be.”
Strength training and overall fitness
Our muscles are “basically mitochondrial power grids,” says Dr Maloof. “Our power and strength come from having great muscle mass, which can be improved through fitness.”
Therefore, doing exercise that speeds up our metabolism and gets our heart rate going has a beneficial impact on our overall metabolic health – but there are other things to think about too.
Can the time of our workouts influence their metabolic impact?
The idea that the time we exercise could be important for metabolism is related to the belief that our circadian rhythms (the internal clocks operating in our body) impact our biological processes. Essentially, exercising at certain times may potentially help tune our internal clocks to work more effectively, thereby improving our metabolic health and/or the rate of our metabolism.
But although scientists agree this could be a factor, there isn’t a consistent answer as to what time is the most useful. While the study mentioned earlier indicates that mornings are best for boosting your metabolism and burning fat, other studies have implied that workouts done later in the day boast metabolic benefits.
In fact, a 2021 study published in Diabetologia found that evening workouts were more powerful than morning exercise for improving metabolic health in overweight men. This was possibly because later workouts had a greater impact on molecular clocks and gene expression (the process by which a cell responds to its changing environment).
Some studies have found that afternoon exercise may improve insulin sensitivity (our body’s ability to use glucose effectively), which is closely related to metabolic health. But other research has found that exercising in the morning could make you more active throughout the day, which can also help with metabolism. So, what does this all mean?
Essentially, more research needs to be done in order for us to know the real answer.
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“Most studies on workout timing so far have limited application to real life,” Dr Oluwajana says. “They may be studies on animals, or focus only on specific groups of people and conditions using small numbers. Results from such studies have been inconsistent, making it difficult to make generalised conclusions. They also do not factor in all the other variables that affect your metabolism.”
The key, then, is to think about what works for you in terms of timings.
“We believe that the individual component should always be taken into consideration,” says sports physiologist Kristina Skroce, who heads up the science team at sports technology company Supersapiens.
“Generally, it’s better just to focus on what suits you. Think of factors such as your personal routine/schedule, the type of workout you enjoy and your goal. The changes in metabolism boosting are not significant enough alone to move a training session if it suits you better at a different time.”
Dr Oluwajana agrees. “Ultimately the best time to work out is the time that suits your lifestyle and your body,” she says.
How to *genuinely* boost metabolic health
If you really want to focus on looking after your metabolism, Dr Oluwajana says staying active is the key. “An active and healthy lifestyle which includes strength training to increase your muscle mass, good nutrition and high protein, proper sleep and reduced stress are going to have the most impact on your metabolic health.”
Sounds good to us.
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