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Pre-Dawn Workouts: Five Ideas to Help Them Stick

photo by: david goehring (via flickr creative commons)

photo by: david goehring (via flickr creative commons)

Every Tuesday morning, I get up at 5:15am, brew and guzzle some coffee, stumble into some clothes, drive to the gym, and click into a spin bike for a 6am class. To any outsider – let’s say, someone who lives in Mali or came of age in the early 20th century – this charade of getting up (in the dark) to go to the gym (in the dark) to ride a bike that goes nowhere would likely seem at best, bizarre.  But in today’s world, it’s common practice.

Some people were born to love morning workouts (my husband is one of those people), and other people have adapted (I fall into this camp).  While my husband easily darts out of bed to do bikram yoga at 5:45am, I have a short battle with my alarm clock every time it goes off before 6am.  This morning’s battle was more significant than usual, leading me to do some quick research about 1) what percentage of people opt for early morning workouts, and 2) what, if any, data supports morning workouts being more effective.

I couldn’t find solid numbers to answer question #1 (although I was surprised to learn that 1/3 of Americans in their 30s rise before 6am), and the research about exercise benefits and time of day is relatively inconclusive.  While there are some known benefits of early morning exercise (greater fat burning if in a fasted state, a “kick-started” metabolism, higher energy, reduced appetite), the strongest and most consistent benefit articles mentioned was simple: getting the workout done before the day starts.

At the core, this is what gets me out of bed.  In our hectic and unpredictable lives, there is a lot of value in certainty.  For me, there is enough value in it that I am able to overcome the painful bed-to-coffee-maker transition and get my workout done before the sun rises.  And beyond certainty, I’ve actually learned to look forward to the energy I get from early morning workouts, the camaraderie I feel with my fellow “pre-dawners,” the beautiful silence of the still-sleeping world around me, and even the familiar sound of “Morning Edition” on NPR.

So, if you’re not an early morning exerciser, but you might like to become one, it’s worth a shot.  Here are a few strategies that have helped me stick to it:

  • I do my favorite workouts in the early morning.  I only opt to do workouts I enjoy early in the morning (you will never find me in the swimming pool at 5am).  Anticipation is obviously a much stronger motivator than dread.
  • I opt for group classes when I can.  It’s way easier to get up for an early morning workout when someone else is doing the thinking, and possibly even holding you accountable for showing up, so classes and personal training are great options.
  • I go to sleep early.  I’m sadly not one of those special people who can be successful after just a few hours of sleep, so if I’m aiming to have a super early morning, I simply don’t burn the midnight oil.
  • I don’t do early morning workouts every day.  I do try to get up relatively early every day (I agree that a consistent schedule makes a huge difference, and I have kids who wake up SUPER F$#%ING EARLY)…but I don’t do an early workout every day.  Some mornings I’ll work or read instead, banking some time so I can exercise in the mid-morning or over lunch.
  • I remember that morning workouts are a luxury.  During a past consulting project, I interviewed a Walmart checker whose daily schedule was something like this: She rose every day at 4am, got her kids ready, drove an hour to her mother’s house (so her mom could take her kids to daycare), and drove another hour to start her shift at 7am…and then did this all in reverse at the end of the day.  A workout wasn’t even on the table for her.  This experience reminds me that being able to do formal exercise at all – much less at 6am in a warm gym – is a flat out luxury that could be taken away at any time.

If you have enough flexibility and control over your day to stick to workouts that fully align with your personal circadian rhythms, lucky you.  Keep it up!  But if you’re finding things getting in the way on a regular basis, it might be worth giving early morning exercise a shot. If you’re already an early morning exerciser, were you born or made?  What strategies work for you?

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