The study, published February 18 in Nature Communications, evaluated health and demographic data from 92,000 people in a UK biomedical database. Participants were given accelerometers that measured when and how intensely they worked out over a seven-day period.
Researchers then looked at mortality records after several years and found that about 3,000 (or 3%) of the participants had died, with about 1,000 from heart disease and 1,800 from cancer.
People who worked out in the mid-afternoon had a lower risk of dying, both in general and from heart disease, compared to evening and morning exercisers. The same held true for people with "mixed" exercise times, who regularly changed their workout schedules. (The study defined mid-afternoon from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., evening from 5 p.m. to midnight, and morning from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m.)
The lowered risk for heart disease death from afternoon workouts was particularly prominent among men, the elderly, less active individuals, and people with pre-existing heart disease.
But, importantly, any exercise was better than no exercise in the study. Moderate to intense physical activity at any time of the day was linked to a lower risk of dying from heart disease and cancer, and the lower risk of dying from cancer remained consistent among all exercise times.
Researchers have gone back and forth about the "ideal time" to get your workout in.
The ideal time of your workout might depend on your goal, as a small study from last year found morning exercise helped women cut down on belly fat and blood pressure, while afternoon lifts increased muscular strength and mood.
Morning exercise tends to get a better reputation, since some research suggests habits done in the morning are easier to stick to. One small study found morning workouts might help more with weight loss than workouts done after 3 p.m.
But afternoon and evening exercise has perks, too.
A small 2020 study that followed 32 men at risk for type 2 diabetes found their bodies controlled blood sugar better with afternoon workouts. And exercising at night might improve blood sugar levels and lower levels of "bad" cholesterol better than morning workouts, one small 2021 study suggested.
No matter the time, research consistently shows any exercise is better than no exercise for cutting back on your risk for chronic disease, improving your mood, lowering your blood pressure, remembering things better, and living longer.
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