Midday is the favourite time to exercise during Covid – but is it the best time?

Lunch has become the preferred time to get a sweat on, as the pandemic has changed the way we exercise

Lunchtime fitness sessions have taken over from the post-work gym class, studies show. Unsplash
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The pandemic has been instrumental in changing a lot of things about the way we live, work and interact. And the latest news out of the US suggests it has also had an effect on how we exercise. Or, more specifically, when we exercise.

According to fitness subscription service ClassPass, which is available in the UAE, lunchtime has become the new favourite time to work out, surpassing the traditional early morning and evening post-office class slots.

"For the first time ever, 12pm is the most popular time to work out during the week," ClassPass says in its fitness trend forecast for 2021.

“Lunchtime workouts have seen a 67 per cent increase in popularity. This shift can largely be attributed to a rise in remote working, and the ease of no-shower-required online meetings.

Even as people have returned to studios, the 12pm weekday time slot for in-person classes is more popular now than it was before lockdowns.”

And people aren't just exercising in studios. You can now take a yoga class under Louvre Abu Dhabi's famous dome, for example.

With people continuing to work remotely, and the lines between the home and the office remaining fluid, when should you be fitting in your daily workout?

‘Consistency over timing’

Michael Sole, founder of The Den DXB, says the pandemic has caused gym owners to re-schedule classes. Courtesy Michael Sole
Michael Sole, founder of The Den DXB, says the pandemic has caused gym owners to re-schedule classes. Courtesy Michael Sole

"I wouldn't say there's an optimum time to exercise, more that it's down to what suits the individual," says Michael Sole, founder of The Den DXB in Motor City. "Some people find that it fits into their schedule better to train earlier in the day and get it out of the way. When it comes to fitness, consistency is far more important than timing.

“Picking the time of day when you can focus your energy is key, because if you’re not in the right frame of mind, you’re not going to give it your all.”

It seems that fitness fans now feel more confident about "giving it their all" in the middle of the day. Peloton, an American exercise equipment company, also recorded a 35 per cent jump in popularity for lunchtime workouts, according to New York Magazine's lifestyle website The Cut. Meanwhile SLT fitness studios in the US also choose to schedule their live classes at 12.30pm every day "after surveying its clients".

People can use their time more flexibly, such as in the hours they might once have spent commuting

“People are a lot more flexible with their time now,” says UAE sports promoter Mark Boyd. “I’ve noticed that, as a trainer, I’m busier because clients are not beholden to specific timings. It used to be that my busiest times were 6am to 8am, before people went to work, then from 6pm onwards. That’s changed now, as people can use their time more flexibly, such as in the hours they might once have spent commuting.”

There are drawbacks to the lunchtime workout, however, as Circuit Factory's Phil Parkinson, says. "We trialled lunchtime virtual classes during the UAE's stay-at-home orders and they were initially popular with non-working females and parents during homeschooling. They were not popular with anyone who was generally working from home, as these people continued to join morning and evening classes.

"The idea of working out in the middle of the day is attractive, but the reality is different," he says. "By lunchtime, people have been awake for four to seven hours, and they are beginning to feel hungry, with energy dips. It is also harder to make lunchtime workouts a habit because of the distractions at that time of the day, such as phone calls, cooking and catch-ups with friends. We still believe before or after normal working hours are more popular."

The science of scheduling your workout

When it comes to scientific studies concerning the optimum time to exercise, opinions are divided.

According to a 2010 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports, afternoon workouts can be more effective with regard to the body's ability to perform. This is because body temperature increases throughout the day, reaching its highest between 2pm and 6pm, which can optimise muscle function and strength and endurance.

A 2018 study published in Current Biology backs that up, as it states humans burn about 10 per cent more calories in the late afternoon than they do late at night.

Meanwhile, a 2019 study published in The Journal of Physiology found that a 7am workout can make you feel more alert in the mornings, and more tired earlier in the evenings, a benefit of which is you'll go to bed earlier and get enough sleep to be more energised for your next morning workout.

"I prefer to train in the morning on as empty a stomach as possible," says Parkinson. "My thinking is that the energy required for the workout will therefore be taken from fat, rather than food that I am digesting from a recent meal. Eating after the workout also makes more sense as it fuels the body and replaces whatever you used."

Lina Shibib, a clinical nutritionist at Medcare Hospitals & Medical Centres in Dubai, says: "Generally, exercise is exercise. Any movement to build muscle at any time of the day can be of great benefit to the body."

Lina Shibib, clinical nutritionist at Medcare Hospitals & Medical Centres.
Lina Shibib, clinical nutritionist at Medcare Hospitals & Medical Centres.

However, even she has noted some benefits to working out earlier in the day. "Recently, studies have been looking more closely at the benefits of exercise besides muscle and weight loss and have shown that working out at 7am, as opposed to later in the afternoon or evening, may help individuals get more quality sleep at night," she explains.

"Another argument making the case for a workout first thing in the morning is that exercising on an empty stomach could burn more fat."

If you're going to do that, however, she says to avoid sports injury, a combination of protein and carbs should be consumed one to four hours pre-workout and within approximately 60 minutes post-workout.

The effects of changing your routine

Generally speaking, humans prefer the stability and dependability of a routine. With the pandemic throwing so much of people’s lives into chaos and uncertainty, exercise became something of a global touchstone. This explains why British fitness expert Joe Wicks's YouTube workouts garnered millions of views and became such a worldwide phenomenon.

"Those taking up their exercise at lunchtime are creating a new routine to adapt with their new working hours, working from home, as they find they are working later into the evening and night,"says Johanna Richmond, a therapist at Cognitive Behaviour Therapy centre in Dubai.

“Having a routine maintains momentum, we prepare for exercise, make arrangements around our exercise routine and this gives us mental stability. Psychological studies have proven that exercise improves our mood, enabling us to become more resilient by releasing our feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin, which is why psychological therapists will always ask and encourage an exercise routine, no matter how minimal at the beginning.”

UAE trends: ‘Boutique gyms, and mum and dad mornings’

There are other ways people's workout habits have changed here in the UAE. Sole has noticed a larger influx of people at the morning sessions, while evenings remain quieter. "We see more parents or couples in the morning sessions, most likely because they want to free up their evenings to spend with their families. And we get more singles in the evening classes."

Boyd says that it's also made a difference to where we work out. "The pandemic has pushed a lot more people into fitness, but it has also scared them away from those big, commercial gyms. People are moving towards smaller, specialised facilities, where there's a close-knit community in which they feel safe."