You'd probably love to be one of those people who consistently exercise after work. But life gets in the way — kids, the job, social commitments — and your daily fitness routine goes out the window. • A morning workout routine seems like an obvious answer, but how do you actually, you know, do it?
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Yes, you can turn yourself into an early riser. But not overnight.
"It's possible, but you have to adjust gradually," says Dianne Augelli, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
"The body can take an hour or less of sleep schedule change," Augelli says. If you normally go to sleep at midnight and get up at 8 a.m., you will not feel rested if you suddenly switch your bedtime to 9 p.m. and get up at 5 a.m. (The American Sleep Association recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night for adults.)
You probably won't be able to make yourself go to sleep that early anyway, Augelli says. "You can't force yourself to fall asleep. Sleep doesn't work that way. But you can begrudgingly force yourself to wake up," she says.
That would mean you might fall asleep at midnight and get up at 5 a.m., and that's no good. In fact, mortality increases when we habitually get less than six hours a night, Augelli says.
Instead, change your sleep schedule by 30 minutes at a time, Augelli says. Start going to sleep at 11:30 p.m. and getting up at 7:30 a.m. Do that for about a week and then roll back another 30 minutes. Do that for about a week and then roll back yet another 30 minutes. Repeat until you land at your desired wakeup time without needing an afternoon nap that day.
Weekend cycles should stay fairly close — within an hour or two — to the weekday cycle: "Our bodies don't know what a weekend is. It's a social construct, not a biological one," Augelli says.
She has some advice for getting to bed earlier — and sleeping better:
• Keep the bedroom cool and dark.
• No coffee within eight hours of bedtime.
• No alcohol within a couple of hours of bedtime. Alcohol puts us to sleep faster but then messes with our "sleep architecture," reducing or even preventing the deepest, most restorative types of sleep. It also may increase the need to use the bathroom throughout the night.
• No large meals within two or three hours of bedtime.
• Shower before bed to cool the body.
• No screen time of any kind within one or two hours of bedtime.
• No working, reading or emailing within an hour of bedtime.
• Turn on bright lights in the morning right as you wake up.
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Even if you wake up rested, how do you get motivated to go to a class or out for a run?
Do something you enjoy
Melissa Westman-Cherry, a Washington, D.C., resident and daily gymgoer, says that when she started working out a little over a decade ago, she chose evening Zumba classes; she needed a class that felt playful in addition to being physically strenuous. "It was a really fun class, and it got me into a routine," she says. These days, when she's not in class, she enjoys catching up on TV shows when on the treadmill.
Work up to it
It wasn't until Westman-Cherry, 46, had established a consistent workout habit that she switched her workouts from evenings to mornings (when her daughter was born). "I think it would be hard to go from not working out at all to working out at 5 in the morning every day," she says. Now she gets up at 4:40 a.m. every day and is at the gym by 5. Her routine is so set that her dogs don't even get out of bed when she leaves before sunrise. They know to wait until 7 for their walk.
Remove the obstacles
Westman-Cherry doesn't necessarily consider herself a morning person, but getting her workout done early is the only way to fit it in. She makes sure she sets out her clothes, water and car keys the night before.
"Plus, there's a sense of pride in having accomplished so much so early in the morning," she says.
Look for outside motivation
Accountability and peer support can also help, says Leslie Swift, 48, a daily exerciser in the Washington, D.C., area. "If other people can get themselves out of bed, then so can I," says Swift, who counts among her exercise preferences spinning and boot camp. Her other motivators: that first delicious, energizing cup of coffee with just enough milk to give her fuel for the workout, and the high she feels during and after a hard workout.
Becky Schechter, a 38-year-old Washington, D.C., resident and working mom with two young children, says she does best when someone else designs her strength-training routine, which is why she does a morning boot camp twice a week when she's not running. That said, she always makes sure she has a backup plan if it rains: old boot camp routines she can do in the comfort of her home.
Make consistency a priority
"Exercise has to become a part of your lifestyle the same way that brushing your teeth is a daily routine," says Art Weltman, professor and chairman of the department of kinesiology at the University of Virginia. Preventing diabetes and osteoporosis, maintaining strength and a healthy weight, improving mood and mental wellness — these benefits occur when we exercise regularly, Weltman says.
Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise per day five times a week. This is better than 150 minutes on the weekends to prevent injuries and feed the brain natural antidepressants as regularly as possible. Can't string together 30 minutes at a time? Split it up.
"You wouldn't dream of walking out the door without brushing your teeth," Weltman says. "We need to make physical activity just as natural a part of our day."
Gabriella Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer. Contact her at gabriellaboston.com.