Today it's pretty common to see 24-hour gyms with dedicated people working out late into the night. I've been a willing participant in late night exercise many times (note: this was in college while my decision making skills weren't fully developed). I would head down to the gym and train after 10 p.m., play competitive midnight basketball, and I even went for a late night run or two.
Was I worse off for doing this? Was I wrecking my body and results? Why did I do this in the first place?
Today we're going to answer these questions and help you walk away with some valuable tips to maximize the benefits of the exercise that you do. Here are the top 3 reasons that exercising late at night is not a good idea.
Reason #1 – You're not leveraging your natural hormone cycles
The first thing to really glean from the example above is that I was young… very young. My hormone function was so tilted in my favor that it's actually a bit scary. I could get away with some serious crimes. Not like robbery or Grand Theft Auto (which I played that video game a LOT in college) but I'm talking about I could be up all night, workout, canoodle with the ladies, and still be able to pass my exams the next day. I don't know about you, but that sounds like some superhero level stuff to me.
Today if I try to pull that crap (minus canoodling with the ladies because I'm happily married now), I'm in a high level fog, I feel like I'm forcing myself to do even the simplest task, and my exercise performance definitely suffers. What happened between then and now? Well, my hormone levels changed, self-respect went way up, and my attention to detail has become razor sharp.
Because I was just doing what everyone else was doing in college, I never stopped to analyze if I could actually be doing BETTER than I was at the time. Today I've been able to research and test the best practices for performance and results. One of the most important things that I've found is that we have a natural high secretion of cortisol in the morning for the sole purpose of doing activity. This secretion gradually declines during the day, and bottoms out at night to cultivate the best conditions for quality sleep.
We are literally designed to do our strenuous activity during the day, and by taking advantage of these hormone cycles we can get radically better results in our performance. We also have spikes of testosterone and adrenaline in the late afternoon/early evening as well, which is another prime time for training. Learn to leverage this for better results.
Reason #2 – Nighttime is not the right time for stress hormones
When you're exercising you are, in fact, activating your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is commonly known as your “fight or flight” system because stress hormones are being produced more than normal, blood and nutrients are being pulled more to your muscles than your brain, digestion, etc, and rejuvenative hormones are lower than normal. The most important thing to understand is that this is a binary system. It's either on or it's off. When it's off, your parasympathetic system is on (the “rest and digest system”). You cannot have both on at the same time… it just doesn't work that way.
Some so-called experts will argue that exercising at night is fine because you'll produce endorphins that help you to relax. Really? The main roles of endorphins are to be natural pain and stress fighters that wouldn't need to be on if you weren't exercising at night in the first place. Because you are going against your body's natural cycles, you are creating more stress to fight, not fighting the stress that you already had. Sure tough exercise before bed can make you tired. But there's a difference between falling asleep and passing out.
It's impossible for your body to get the most rejuvenative sleep right after exercise. And sleep is the real name of the game when it comes to changing your body.
Reason #3 – Day time exercisers sleep better (the science)
A recent study at Appalachian State University found that morning workouts are ideal if you want to get the best sleep at night. Researchers tracked the sleep patterns of participants who worked out at three different times: 7 a.m., 1 p.m. or 7 p.m.
What they discovered was that people who exercised at 7 a.m. slept longer and had a deeper sleep cycle than the other two groups. In fact, the morning exercisers had up to 75% more time in the reparative “deep sleep” stage at night. This is so impressive, and a huge leverage point if you're interested in a longer life and a better body.
Just being awake, itself, is a catabolic process. This means that your body is in a state where things are being broken down faster than they can be built back up. Sleep, on the other hand, is known as an elevated anabolic state. During sleep is when you have the most beneficial secretions of rejuvenating hormones, your brain and memory are improved (a process called memory processing), and your body is repaired from the activity you did during the day. Better Sleep = Better results. It's as simple as that.
Your body also goes through a process called thermoregulation to help you sleep. During this process your core temperature drops to put you into the best state for deep sleep. Exercise intrinsically raises your core temperature, and it can take 5 to 6 hours for it to come back down. This is another reason why exercising close to bed is not ideal. Sure you can sleep, but your body is not in the optimal state to get the best sleep.
And here's a little bonus tip: After your core temperature finally comes back down after exercise, it actually goes lower than normal. So timing your exercise around 6 hours before bed time can help you sleep better from a thermoregulation perspective. This is why I still often train around 4:30 p.m. if I'm going to bed at 10:30 p.m.
Now, let me make this one thing clear. This is not just about staying up and exercising late at night, this is also about getting up extremely early and interrupting your sleep for the sake of exercise. I've had clients who get up at 3 a.m. just to get a workout in. Daytime hormones are still at extremely low levels at that point, but hey, who cares about evolution… I'm going to do what I want anyway silly hormones.
Seriously though, we need to be aware of this and structure our lives so that we can train at ideal times to help us get the best results. As human beings we're not just products of our environment, we are CREATORS of our environment and more powerful to affect change than we realize. We are better off sleeping those extra two hours than getting only 5 hours of sleep and trudging along on the treadmill at 4:00 a.m. There are ways to shift things around, it's just a matter of putting our focused attention on them.
So after finding out all of this, why did I exercise late at night when I was younger? Well, first of all, I didn't know any better (obviously). Secondly, I had the construct in my mind that it was the only time that I had to exercise, which was totally false looking back on it. I've worked with a few thousand people at this point, and one of the most life-changing things I've been able to help people with is re-prioritizing their lives and helping them to free up more time to do the things they love and take care of their bodies.
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