Woman stretching morning

How to start exercising in the morning if you’re a night owl

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Self-confessed night owl Harriet Prior was jealous of early risers who could exercise first thing in the morning before their day began, but thought it could never be her. Here’s what happened when she challenged herself to 6am workouts for a week…

I’ve always wanted to be a morning person who is able to turn up to work all bright-eyed, having done an early-morning spin class. I wished I could reap the benefits of early exercise without feeling sick or having an energy crash, but the truth is, I’m a self-confessed night owl who’s grown accustomed to sleeping in, working late and exercising even later. 

I settled into this nighttime regime as a mechanism for sleep anxiety. Five years on, I scarcely remember a night I have shut my laptop screen before 1am.

In a pre-pandemic world, my schedule rarely presented any problems. However, the past 18 months has thrown any sense of routine I had into disarray – and it turns out that I’m not alone. With the lines between the professional and personal blurred, we’re working more and looking after ourselves less. A study revealed that the UK’s working week has become 25% longer during the pandemic, pushing the time we log off to 8pm. 

In turn, there’s been an emergence of sleeping problems and heightened symptoms of stress and anxiety. The days of an uninterrupted eight hours sleep are a distant memory as more people experience insomnia, disrupted nights, and worsened sleep quality.

For a lucky few, these changes have helped to boost activity levels, as they attempt to combat boredom or take advantage of the time gained by working from home. Others have noticed a severe drop in motivation, performance coach Arj Thiruchelvam BSc explains.

Falling firmly into the latter category, exercise has dropped lower on my list of priorities. I switch my trainers and leggings for slippers and pyjamas all too often. In a desperate bid to recapture my mojo, I turned to Google – where I stumbled across a study that made me stop scrolling. Researchers exploring the link between activity levels and sleep chronotypes – a person’s propensity to sleep at certain times of day – discovered that night-owls are less physically active than early risers. Early birds really do catch the worm, managing to squeeze in an additional 30 minutes of activity each day. 

“There is a lower chance of skipping workouts because there isn’t as much time for other things to get in the way,” says Thiruchelvam. “By exercising first thing, people feel a sense of relief for having completed their training session early on,” helping them to maintain a consistent routine. I doubted whether this could really work for me but knew that there was only one way to get the answers I wanted. So, I gave it a go for myself and exercised between 6am and 7am for a week. Here’s what happened: 

Day 1

After an uncharacteristically disrupted night’s sleep, my alarm jolted me into consciousness. I had a sensation in my tummy similar to when you wake up early for a holiday – excited and scared that you’ll miss your flight. I managed to drag myself out of bed and onto the yoga mat, easing myself into the week with a gentle Vinyasa flow.

When asked to predict how the week would play out, Thiruchelvam warned me my “first session would be quite tiring.” Tiring was an understatement. I’ve been practising yoga for more than six years, and during my first morning workout (perhaps ever), I forgot what an upward-facing dog was. I could barely touch my knees, let alone my toes. By the end of the flow, however, I felt energised and ready for the day ahead… until l took off my unnecessarily tight sports bra and fell back into bed. Better luck next time!

Woman tired in bed
I felt great on my first morning but then, accidentally, ended up back in bed post-workout

Day 2

I switched yoga for a low-impact HIIT workout today, hopeful that it would wake me up rather than send me back to sleep. It had the desired effect. You’ll ordinarily find me flinging myself around the living room doing burpees, high-kicks and boxing. However, this time I went for a 20-minute Zanna Van Dijk workout that involved less jumping – but nevertheless left me drenched in sweat. Not only did I resist the temptation to crawl back into bed (let’s face it, that wouldn’t have been hygienic), but I also managed to touch my toes. I’d say that’s progress. 

Day 3

The third workout of the week was a stretch and strength combo, which made for the most enjoyable morning so far. “I predict you will feel a sense of achievement and slightly smug for having completed the exercise towards the beginning of the day,” performance coach Thiruchelvam told me, and he was right. I’ve proudly posted my workouts on Instagram, showing the world I am now a certified “early riser”. I’m slowly realising that movement is a much better energy boost than caffeine. And for the first time, I’m starting to look forward to waking up early tomorrow. 

Day 4

It was a morning of ups and downs. I woke up before my alarm for the first time and then knocked over a glass of water on the bedside table. While waking up this morning felt the hardest so far, working out was the easiest and despite desperately wanting to nap later in the day, I was wide awake. The novelty has started to wear off, and I’m worried exercising first thing is beginning to feel like a chore. 

Day 5

As day five draws to a close, I’m noticing the benefits of working out early. I’m moving much more, opting to go for a walk in the afternoon when I have nothing else to do. I’m using my phone less, as I have stopped mindlessly scrolling before bed and as soon as I wake up. My mental health has improved, and the usual 3pm slump has all but disappeared. I’m focused, performing better at work and using my time more constructively. The days of binge-watching Netflix through the night are a distant memory…for now.

Day 6

I never usually exercise this much and while my mind felt bright today, my body was tired. I listened to what it was telling me, and an extended stretch session helped to get me back on the right track. A bit like when the honeymoon period comes to an end and things become comfortable, I’ve started to settle into a routine. Although, I’m still working out whether it’s a long-term thing. 

Early morning stretch
My body was tired by day six, so a little gentle stretching was the ideal morning awakener.

Day 7

Weight training is a regular feature in my usual training regime. However, I find picking up my water bottle difficult in the early hours of the morning, let alone a set of weights. On day seven, I decided to test myself and give it a go.

As expected, my strength in the morning is practically nonexistent. “There is evidence to suggest weight or resistance training in the evening is marginally preferable because peak force is usually demonstrated to be highest at this time,” explains Thiruchelvam. Particularly if you’re not eating breakfast before exercising (I haven’t been), it’s not unusual to find weight training testing. Tempted to swap my 5kg weights for tins of beans, I power through with Joe Wicks virtually by my side. Thank goodness it was the last day, as I don’t think I’ll be moving very much tomorrow.

I embarrassingly high-fived myself in the mirror, marking the end of a challenging but enormously rewarding week. As I sat on the floor feeling refreshed – a world apart from day one – I began to ponder the validity of being a night owl or early riser. Ultimately, I’ve discovered there’s no one-size-fits-all. Instead, there’s power to be found in individuality, says Thiruchelvam: “If people feel more motivated or less stressed when exercising at a particular time, they should exercise then.” It really is as simple as that. 

Morning vs evening workouts – the verdict

A good morning routine is undeniably conducive to a positive mindset and can set you off on the right foot for the day. Whether it’s working out, meditating, reading a book or sipping your coffee, it’s important to take time out for yourself and maintain a sense of normality in an abnormal time. It has undoubtedly helped me to manage my anxiety, move more and enjoy some me-time.

However, life can get in the way. Perhaps you need to stay up late to meet a deadline or are catching up with a friend. Maybe everything just feels a little too much and a lie-in will make things feel a little easier.

It became increasingly apparent as the week went on that my tendency to stay up late and sleep in has less to do with an inability to be get up at the crack of dawn – it’s more a reflection of the type of person I am.

In all honestly, I miss late nights. I miss the endless creativity and time spent alone while the world sleeps. I like being free from the pressure to do anything other than relax. Sure, watching Netflix and grabbing a midnight snack might not be the best for my physical health, but sometimes it’s exactly what my mental health needs. I now know I can function in the early hours of the morning and intend to use that to my advantage moving forward. But I think I am made to be a night owl, after all. 

Ready to work up a sweat? Hop on over to the SWTC video library where you’ll find a range of 30-50 minute workouts that you can do in your own time – morning, noon or night!

Images: Getty

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