There's no getting around it: To lose weight and keep it off, you need to exercise. But some days that hardly seems possible. Our days are overbooked already! Yet experts agree - exercise must become part of your overall daily lifestyle. And starting the morning with exercise is the best habit of all.
"The key is getting exercise whenever you can - whether it's morning, afternoon, or evening," says Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist of the American Council on Exercise. "Your goal is to move your body as much as possible."
But by starting your morning with physical activity, you set the day's pace, Bryant says. "Morning exercisers tend to stick with their exercise habit," he says. "By doing the bulk of exercise first thing in the morning, you get your exercise in before other distractions can intrude. We can all relate to that -- because once the day gets going, it's hard to get off the treadmill called life."
The Case for Morning Exercise
Research suggests that morning exercise improves sleep, a benefit that could also promote weight loss, Bryant tells WebMD. One study of overweight women between the ages of 50 to 75 showed that those who engaged in consistent morning exercise (about four hours a week) slept better than those who exercised less. The evening exercisers had more trouble falling asleep - even if they fit in the four hours a week.
Bryant explains the connection of sleep and weight loss: "We know that if you have poor quality sleep, it influences certain hormones that control appetite. It is possible that by exercising in the morning -- instead of evening - the exercise affects the body's circadian rhythm (your internal body clock) so you get better-quality sleep. Good sleep helps control the hormonal balance that helps control appetite."
Brisk exercise (an hour or more daily) has helped more than 4,000 "successful losers" in The National Weight Control Registry -- they've all lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off for a year or longer. Many of them break up their exercise into shorter spurts throughout the day instead of doing a single, marathon workout session.
"Think of your morning exercise like a business appointment - one you can't easily cancel," says Gary Foster, PhD, clinical director of the weight and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "It takes discipline. But if you're overweight, you're at risk for a heart attack. If you don't do something about your weight, it's indirect self-destructive behavior. It's the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes daily. This has got to be the highest priority because it's your health."
Working Exercise Into Your Life
One way to make exercise a daily habit is to integrate your workout into your regular life, says Walter Thompson, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Physical activity - not just exercise per se -- can become part of your daily routine, Thompson tells WebMD. "People think they have to strap on running shoes and run a marathon to call it exercise. I talk more about integrating physical activity into your daily lifestyle."
His advice: "When you go to the mall, the grocery store, the office, park your car as far away from the front door as you can. Take the stairs rather than the elevator. These are habits you can get used to. They will become common practice."
Structured physical activity is also important. Walking, yoga, lifting weights, biking, running, and swimming - could all be a morning exercise choice. Here's an estimate of the average calorie-burn potential from 30 minutes of exercise:
One recent study noted that yoga - a popular morning activity - can help prevent the dreaded middle-age spread and even help shed unwanted pounds. Researchers looked at normal and overweight men and women who practiced yoga regularly (at least one session of 30 minutes or more per week) for four years or more. It compared their weight with the weight of people who didn't do yoga.
Normal-weight people who practiced yoga gained less than those who didn't practice yoga. Overweight people who practiced yoga lost an average of 5 pounds; those who didn't practice gained about 14 pounds.
Yoga's effect may have more to do with body awareness than the actual calories burned during the average session, researchers say. During yoga practice, you are more aware of your body - which can prompt you to quit eating when you're full.
Getting Started on Your Exercise Routine
If you're really trying to lose weight and keep it off, work toward a goal of 60 to 90 minutes of exercise most days of the week. But that's a lot to ask someone who's just starting out, says Thompson. If that's you, try it in 10-minute chunks of time at first -- several times a day, several days a week.
To get your morning exercise ritual going, here are some tips.
Talk to a doctor first. If you are overweight and if you have risk factors for heart disease - high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or family history of heart disease - get your doctor's OK before starting an exercise program, Thompson says.
Start with walking. Set short-term goals - 10 minutes, 15 minutes, etc. Gradually increase the number of days. Walking a dog is great because it gets you out for 20 minutes in the morning, and then 20 more at night. "If I can get someone up to 45 minutes or an hour of exercise during the day, I consider that a major success," Thompson notes. "You can't ask anyone to immediately start exercising for 90 minutes. You have to start with lifestyle changes and increase from there."
Consider a health club. "Some people need a lot of variety to stay interested in exercise," says Thompson. "That's where health clubs are great. They always keep people's interest piqued on exercise. And if you're paying for it, you're likely to go."
Buy or rent workout tapes or DVDs. If you prefer a quiet start to the day, try tapes and DVDs that feature yoga, weight training, and aerobic workout programs. Be sure to check who created them, however. "Some programs marketed by celebrities don't have good science behind them," he advises. "Look at the advisory board or advisor on the label. The good ones have an exercise physiologist as an advisor."
Don't forget weekends. If you make exercise part of your everyday lifestyle, stick with it on weekends, too. Keep treating it as an appointment. Don't let anything interfere. "It's your protected time and nothing else intrudes," says Foster. "You are keeping this commitment to yourself. This is something good that you're doing for yourself."