fitness · season transitions

Catherine considers (the radical idea of) shifting to morning exercising

I am not a morning person. Never have been, even in childhood. My mother would glide into my room, singing, and I would pull the pillow over my head, hoping she wouldn’t see me. Yes, this happened the last time I visited her, too (she’s in her late 70s and I’m in my late 50s). Even from the comfort of my own home, if I’m called upon to get up earlier than say, 9:30am, I have to set an alarm and give myself time to emerge from feeling like the walking dead.

A chimpanzee, wrapped in a multicolored sheet, simulating unhappiness upon waking in a tree. That’s my best guess.

The onset of menopause has made me more of a night person, not less. In addition to late night hormonally-induced internal temperature fluctuations, I started having trouble getting to sleep before say, 2 or 3am. That’s pretty darn inconvenient, even for a lucky person like me, who has a flexible work schedule.

The cherry on top of this insomnia sundae has been the pandemic. Since March, my so-called “regular” sleep schedule has shifted to 2am–10am, with occasional nights when I am up until 4am. Aargh.

Whenever I tell people about my unhappiness with my night owlishness and insomnia, they invariably pepper me with questions (which feel a tiny bit accusatory), and suggestions (none of which are remotely unfamiliar to or untried by me). Here’s a list of reasons why people have trouble sleeping, compiled by this slightly irritating article. Note that every item except for one starts with “YOU…” , as in “YOU did this– what were you thinking?” The last one blames the room temperature, but who do they think set the thermostat? YOU.

List of things that YOU did that may have caused YOU to have trouble sleeping.
List of things that YOU did that may have caused YOU to have trouble sleeping. And whose fault is that?

Just so you know: I’ve tried changing every single one of these things (and sometimes all of them), and still haven’t had long-term success in shifting my sleep hours.

This very-delayed sleep onset schedule has wreaked havoc on my outdoor exercise plans. I just don’t love walking or cycling alone outside after dark, especially in late fall/early winter. And when I start my workday at say, 10:30am, it’s hard to take a significant break to head outside before dusk hits. Yes, taking a brisk stroll after lunch seems like a good idea, and it is a good idea. However, given my work habits, it has maintained its idea status, failing to transition into activity.

So here’s an idea: schedule and do my outdoor walk or cycling in the morning. Well, first thing in MY morning. It would be a big change, as I am not very alert when I wake up, and it takes me a while to get myself together. Actually leaving the house within say, 30 minutes of waking is a radical idea. But, it would do a few things:

  • I’d get outside in the light;
  • I’d get some exercise earlier in the day, which would be an interesting experiment for my sleep schedule;
  • I’d be less stressed about when I was going to get outside, as it would already be done first thing;
  • It might help me be more energetic when I settled down to do work.
  • It might improve my mood– both exposure to light and exercise upon waking are touted as winter mood enhancers.

I must confess that, on the very rare occasions that I’ve done early morning exercise (generally because someone’s talked me into it– yes, I mean you Samantha and you Janet), I marveled at how lovely it is to be outside in nature in the morning. So there is precedent for this action.

Making this shift won’t be easy. Here’s a list of things I’d have to do in order to make this work:

  • Actually try it.
  • At least once.
  • Maybe a few times even.
  • Don’t think about it.
  • Just go.
  • Outside.
  • How about tomorrow?

I mean, how hard can it be? These people seem okay, and they’re outside in the morning.

So there it is, readers. I’ve come out with a one-step plan: go outside first thing in my day. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Have any of you tried to and successfully (or non-successfully) shifted your exercise schedules? I’d love to hear about it.

13 thoughts on “Catherine considers (the radical idea of) shifting to morning exercising

  1. I was a morning exerciser but found I wasn’t getting enough sleep getting up at 0445 to meet friends at 0500 – found the lake of sleep impacted my entire balance – sleep does so much for the body. I miss the morning crew but adjusted well to an evening exercise routine during the work week (late mornings on the weekend). Menopause plays havoc on the mind and body and playing close attention to exercise, sleep, and nutrition pay off – as has a hormone patch for me (personal choice at 55 after a recent hysterectomy). Keep working on finding what works for you. Nice article. Suz!

    1. Wow– 5am meeting to exercise? Wow again. Yes, you’re totally right about prioritizing exercise, sleep and nutrition. I do think it’s worth figuring out how to do some daytime outdoor exercise just about every day. It really lifts my mood and helps me feel like I’m taking better care of myself. Will be reporting back. Glad to hear you’ve adjusted to evening exercise; I’ll be so glad when we can return to the gym safely for evening workouts!

  2. I’m wondering what time your classes are and whether there’s anyway just to embrace what seems like a pretty entrenched night owl disposition. Get up at ten, slowly get moving, exercise outdoors noonish and then start work at one. Even with an eight hour day and a dinner break, you’re still done by ten or eleven. Since you can work when it’s dark why not embrace the night owl lifestyle and play in the daylight?

    1. Yes– working around my actual, very entrenched sleep patterns seems more likely to succeed than trying to change those patterns. It’s harder to keep working after dark, but then again it’s feeling hard to do much of anything after dark these days. The good news is: it doesn’t last. And the other good news is: doing this post has made me realize that daytime exercise is a big priority. So I can work my work around my exercise. Thanks for the comments!

    1. Oh yes, I get this. If I sacrifice sleep, then I’ll be tired or cranky all day. If I can make a time shift for both exercise AND work, then things look more promising. Thanks for the support!

  3. I was on a similar schedule to yours… then I moved from Virginia to Lake Tahoe (CA) and somehow became a morning person. Four years later I’m still awake by 7 without an alarm and in bed by 10. I blame time zones! It’s easy to wake up early when everyone is three hours ahead of you.

    1. I love love love western time zone shifts, as they turn me (briefly) into a morning person. Glad your habit stuck!

  4. Apologies in advance for what might be a long comment… *cracks knuckles*

    So, I’ve been a serious night owl my whole life, even in childhood. Of course many social forces pushed me into daylight living, from school to workplace to general shaming about what it means to be groggy in the mornings. I went freelance in 2005, and found myself continuing to push myself to try and be more awake in the mornings, which consistently resulted in me feeling virtuous but otherwise terrible. But about 12 years ago or so, I instead asked myself the radical question, “What would it look like if I built my life around what my body wants instead of what the rest of the world wants?” … and I have not looked back.

    Now, it goes like this: I go to bed anywhere between 4 and 7 a.m. I wake up sometime between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., sometimes with an alarm, sometimes not. I sleep deeply and feel great when I wake up – well rested and strong. The first portion of my day is active: I eat a robust breakfast, and then I get out on my bike, run errands, do house chores, go to appointments, whatever needs doing. This is also where I slot in client meetings, which in my line of work are a portion of what I do but not a huge one. Then in the evening comes another meal, and lower-intensity stuff: yoga, social time with friends, that sort of thing. Then, sometime between 10 pm and 1 am depending on my workload, I grab some nutritious snacks and settle down to work. I’m not restless, because my energy is quieter after an active day, but I am very alert and focused, and also nobody interrupts me so I get a lot done. When I find my concentration flagging, I do something brief to pull my brain out of work mode – some reading, a hot shower, a little gaming – and then I go to bed.

    It doesn’t always work exactly like this, because of the boom-bust cycle of freelancing, variable weather that affects my cycling, and so on. And sometimes there’s an early morning thing that can’t be avoided, like a specialist appointment or the like. But by and large I run my life by my own body clock, and lemme tell you, it feels AMAZING. It may not look like everyone else’s life but my body is SO much happier than when I was trying to force it to conform, and I feel like I’m respecting my various types of energy throughout the cycle of the day. And, as you have pointed out, this means I’m outdoors and active in daylight hours.

    I know not everyone can go to the extreme the way I have managed to, but if my experience is of any use, I would say: in the same way that intuitive eating is often really great for bodies, I think the same is true of intuitive sleeping, and intuitive exercising too. These things all relate to each other and they all start with listening really deeply to what your body is telling you, and taking that seriously. To whatever extent you can create a life that lets you do this, I say go for it. Worst case, it doesn’t work and you go back to old habits. Best case, you feel better than ever because you’re respecting what your body is telling you to do. 🙂

    1. Now I am going to ask you to blog about intuitive sleeping! Seriously we could just use your comment. I often defend night owls these days and you’re my example. I used to say judgey things like “nothing productive happens at night” and “no one watches Netflix at 6 am” but I’ve realized that’s me. I can’t work at night but I am a hard core morning person. You’re the opposite! I love that we only overlap on the internet when I’m on sabbatical in Australia.

      1. I agree with Sam here– we could use your comments (which you could add to or not) for an intuitive sleeping blog. Let us know. Love this idea!

    2. Thank you so much for your comments and story here! You are so right– there’s a lot of sleep shaming that goes on, and it’s absurd. At the very least we (the night owls) don’t have to take it onboard ourselves. In a way I’ve kind of adjusted to what you do; I sleep basically 2–10am, get up, meditate and do a little yoga, then crank up the computer to do work. I teach two days a week at 11am and 11:15 am, so I’m up by 9 on those days. I really like hearing how you just flat out take time for cycling or other activity, and then you backload your work to a time that’s quieter (for you and the outside world), which works for you. It’s worth thinking about how to own a schedule that my body has already decided for me. Thanks again!

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