Finding time to commit to exercise can be a real challenge, forcing many of us to squeeze in a quick run or gym session whenever there's a spare moment. But research suggests if you really want to make the most of your exercise, you should do it at the same time each day. It's a schedule your body will thank you for.
A 2019 study lead by researchers from Brown Alpert Medical School in the US showed it really doesn't matter if you're a dawn jogger or a twilight cyclist; it's the consistency that's key if it's weight-loss you're after.
The US Department of Health and Human Services suggests two and a half hours of moderate physical activity each week is the least we should be doing to keep healthy.
And not just a minute here or there, but at least 10 minutes of heart-pounding exercise in each session.
Needless to say, if you're fairly fit and in a good state of health, you're probably meeting this requirement. But many of those who have problems keeping their weight down often struggle to get the exercise they need.
Using survey results on the physical activity of 375 individuals exercising for weight loss, the researchers of the 2019 study identified a strong relationship between a moderate-to-vigorous level of exercise at the same time of day and the amount of time spent exercising.
Roughly half of the volunteers were morning people, which, when taken in context with a previous study by some of the same scientists, could indicate physical activity before you start your day is the way to go.
This preference for regularity might all come down to the way we think about our diary.
Activities we expect to do at set times – such as picking up the kids, going to work, or attending social meetings – aren't really things we give a great deal of conscious thought to.
This mindless repetition is referred to as automaticity in psychology circles, and has already been shown to be important when it comes to sticking to an exercise regime.
By actively considering how we could slot in a quick walk or treadmill session, we're more likely to cut back minutes of pulse-raising activity rather than commit to the exercise.
The secret is to therefore associate exercise with some pre-existing mental 'cue' for an appointment that you won't avoid, reducing the effort required if you had to plan an activity and then motivate yourself to see it through.
You might catch the 7:30 train, manage a short cardio workout at the gym near the office, and then be at your desk for that daily 9 am meeting. Or, if you're a night owl, going for a late run the moment you get home.
That walk to the train station might be a habit, but it doesn't count. Incidental exercise can be worked into a routine, but only if it's of a kind that makes your heart noticeably pump harder and demands effort.
"Repeatedly exercising in the presence of consistent cues, such as at the same time of day or in the same location, may help to establish cue exercise relationships," wrote the researchers.
On its own, a survey such as this can only go so far in demonstrating what causes something as complicated as an exercise habit. Individual motivators can't be dismissed, and more research is needed before any definitive claims can be made.
"It will also be important to determine whether there is a specific time of day that is more advantageous for individuals who have initial low physical activity levels to develop a physical activity habit," the study's first author, Leah Schumacher, said in 2019.
Around the globe, just under a third of women and nearly a quarter of all men aren't engaging in a level of physical activity that will keep them on the right side of healthy.
The reasons are no doubt complex and varied, and also seem to be linked with how much leisure time we actually have at our disposal.
It's hard, especially for busy folks, but getting your 150 minutes a week is important. Pick a time and stick to it.
This research was published in Obesity.
A version of this article was originally published in July 2019.