Night owls move less, study finds: How to be more active if you hate morning workouts

Knowing your chronotype may be key to staying healthy.
Go for a sunset workout if it feels right.
Go for a sunset workout if it feels right.Martin Novak / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

An early morning workout can be refreshing or feel like torture — it all depends on a person’s sleep chronotype, the natural inclination to slumber at a particular time during a 24-hour period.

“Morning larks” rise with the sun and retire way before midnight; “night owls” love to sleep in and go to bed late — when given the chance. Many people fall somewhere in between.

Now a new study confirms what researchers have suspected: Evening types are less physically active than the other groups, with night owl men especially more sedentary.

Morning types managed to squeeze in about 30 minutes more of physical activity a day for men and about 20 minutes more for women, researchers in Finland found.

Meanwhile, the average time spent sitting was more than 30 minutes longer for evening-type men than their morning peers.

It’s why exercise recommendations should be more personalized, said Laura Nauha, lead author of the study and a doctoral student at the University of Oulu in Finland.

“I’d say that our modern world runs at the pace of the morning types,” Nauha told TODAY.

“It would be important and beneficial to know your chronotype… (and it) could change our behavior: Evening types might work harder to try to ensure their exercise and pay attention to excessive sitting.”

To figure out your chronotype, try the Morningness–Eveningness Questionnaire.

The authors of the paper, published in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, used a version of this test to find out the chronotypes of 5,156 people who were also part of a decades-long study of children born in Finland in 1966.

Now middle-aged, they wore activity monitors that tracked their movements for at least two weeks.

Only a minority of the participants, about 6%, turned out to be evening types. Morning people made up 42% of women and 39% of men, the rest were “day types” in between the two. The study’s findings are based on this cohort in Finland, but Nauha believed the results would also apply to people in the U.S. since “humans are very similar all over the world.”

Evening people may be more sedentary because they spend time sitting at night when others are already asleep, the study noted. Their peak of performance and alertness comes later, but it may be more difficult to go out and exercise at the end of the day, Nauha said, when work ends and people start to focus more on socializing, eating or winding down.

Previous studies have suggested being an evening type is linked with higher morbidity, perhaps because of a combination of unhealthy sedentary and dietary habits, lack of sleep, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, the authors noted.

A person’s chronotype typically changes over a lifetime, with children often starting out as morning larks then becoming night owls during the teenage years.

The preference either way is stable in midlife, but people move towards being the morning type again in old age, Nauha said.

Exercise tips for night owls:

People are very deliberate about their favorite time to work out because it can affect their motivation, said Jack Raglin, an exercise psychologist and professor at Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington.

“The idea of switching times of day is not appealing,” he told TODAY.

“Especially for evening people, that’s very, very hard. Evening people start out more slowly in the morning; their mood or energy levels may not be comparable to a morning person’s so the whole idea of having to get up and rev it up right away is difficult.”

He offered this advice for evening types who want to be more active:

Exercise when it feels right, even late at night: The notion that exercising in the evening can delay sleep is a myth, Raglin said. “When you’re done exercising, you typically feel less anxious and more relaxed and that’s also conducive to sleep,” he noted. Just avoid a “really crazy, a really hard workout” right before bed unless that's what you're used to.

Break up exercise into manageable bits: Go for a relaxing 15-minute walk in the morning or do some stretches, then do a more vigorous session later in the day. This works for people who hate going all out when they’re still sleepy. Exercise twice a day — you don’t have to do it all at once.

Consider the benefits of an a.m. workout: People who exercise in the morning feel very good about accomplishing that first thing. “That could be very motivating… You’ve gotten it out of the way and you’ve got the whole day ahead of you and you can check that off your list,” Raglin said. You could be pleasantly surprised.

Remember evening workouts have their own unique benefits: You can get the stresses of the day out and think more clearly. “It can be an added dividend not just because of the exercise but because of the way it makes you feel. It’s a ritual to end your day beneficially,” Raglin said.