On exercising in the afternoon

Everyone knows when you ought to work out: early in the morning, the moment after you roll out of bed. You know, to get the day started right. This advice can be found in countless productivity books and columns, not to mention in the ever-so-slightly smug Facebook postings of your most obnoxiously fit friends.

Off and on over the years I’ve tried to exercise in the morning. And I won’t deny a certain pleasure, once the shivers and abject sleep-deprived misery wears off, in running on a quiet road while the sun rises and the dew glistens on the trees.

I have fewer good things to say about lifting weights in the morning. Barbellso cold!

I’d be lying, though, if I said it wasn’t a struggle every time. Far worse have been the aftereffects.

Oh, sure, after a brisk bout of morning exercise I feel accomplished. A little too accomplished. A long run or a heavy lifting session flips the switch in my head labeled “I got something big done”. Afterwards, my brain wants nothing to do with any further work. I’m lazy, lethargic, prone to distraction. I drag my way slowly through eating and showering. I dawdle and yawn and daydream. I’m much more susceptible to checking Twitter and email, despite my intentions not to do that until my creative work is finished for the day. Oh look, it’s noon already!

After one too many days where a morning’s workout left me struggling to drag my mind back to work, I said “enough of this” and started scheduling my workouts in the much less brag-worthy early afternoon. That period of post-lunch when my choices are, realistically, go for a run or fall asleep. It works as a punctuation between my morning creative work, and my afternoon study and upkeep tasks.

And it’s great. It’s so much easier to “take a break” and jump up from my desk for a workout once I’ve been steadily working for a while. If I’ve already gotten a big chunk of work done, I don’t feel like my fitness is going to “steal” time from my creative commitments.

So anyway, yesterday afternoon I was running around the neighborhood, listening to audiobooks, as I do. The book I’m listening to right now is A Mind of Its Own, by Cordelia Fine. And yesterday during my run I reached the section on willpower.

According to research and cognitive theory, a number of mental exertions all pull from the same finite well of energy. Things like focused work on intellectually challenging problems. Or using willpower to avoid eating cookies. Or navigating difficult emotional terrain.

Exhaust the “moral muscle” with one of these tasks, and others suffer. Tax a person’s willpower, and their ability to work on math problems drops afterwards. Or vice versa.

Crucially, one of the mental efforts included in this category is using willpower to sustain strenuous physical activity. Such as choosing to continue squeezing a hand grip. Or choosing to keep running for one more mile.

I now feel vindicated in my new exercise schedule. My reduced capacity for focused work after morning workouts wasn’t just laziness and moral failure on my part: it was a laboratory-confirmed outcome of stressing my willpower!

I realize that for some folks, a morning workout is the only kind their schedule allows for. And others may just really, really enjoy it.

Me, I’m going to enjoy guilt-free afternoon exercise from now on.

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  1. Being an “expert” on avoiding all horrible exercise, especially anything in the morning, when I am a total zombie, I think you make perfect sense. And after whatever exercise I do manage, I just want to kick back with a beer, screw concentrated thinking and working. After all, I earned a break! (Of course, being “retired”, i.e. lazy, helps.) ;D

  2. Dilbert’s Scott Adams too does the same thing for the same reason. It was from his recent book “How to fail at almost everything and still win big in Life”.

    His mornings are for creative pursuits, including his main job of drawing comics, and writing for his famous blog, and the afternoons are for working out.

    You’ll like his book.

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