Is waking up early to work out worth the effort?
It was thrilling to watch the battle between morning people and night owls when Edith Zimmerman’s article “It’s Astounding How Many Problems Can Be Solved Just by Waking Up Early” for the Cut was published in October 2018. Zimmerman’s critics scoffed at the impracticality of waking up “obscenely early” for its own sake; a few thought it was a life hack that would ultimately only serve the capitalist spiral to burnout. Some natural early birds liked Zimmerman’s argument, which stated what they felt was obvious (but let’s face it, night owls have stereotypically been the cooler birds—particularly in the city that never sleeps).
A mere two weeks before that article electrified a topic of conversation usually as mundane as the weather, I discovered a truth that made me question everything. I’d always bragged about my ability to stay up late, pulling all-nighters through college and even high school to get essays done more often than not, and I was sure I was not a morning person. After college, the afternoon was when I did my best editing and proofreading; night was when I did my best creative work.
But it was at 8:30am on October 9 in a Flywheel class when I started to realize it: I was not necessarily a night owl. I was capable of waking up early, being productive in the morning, doing things—even doing them energetically. I booked nearly every morning class that month during a ClassPass special discounting Flywheel down to 5 points a pop. And I loved it.
By the time Zimmerman’s article was in the zeitgeist, I enjoyed working out, but I hadn’t quite shifted to being a “morning person.” I still kind of slept my way to class and went through the motions for a while after. I hadn’t quite shaken off what Zimmerman calls the “reptilian” brain in the mornings left over from my previous schedule. But Flywheel is one of many classes perfect for warming up your foggy head. It’s a matter, literally, of putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again. If I set up my gym bag correctly the night before and didn’t hit snooze too many times, my mornings were, pleasantly, a no-brainer. (Bonus: no makeup until after class meant I left the house much more quickly and could tackle a cat eye later in the day, after class, with a steadier hand and grogginess shaken off.) Embrace your inner lizard brain, and getting a workout done has never been easier. Tip: You can’t overthink your workout if you’re not thinking.
I realize this isn’t for everyone for two reasons.
1. Timing Is Everything
My office doesn’t open until 10am, and frankly, I don’t know if I’d ever have attempted a morning workout if I started work at 9am or earlier. I know it’s not really feasible for my friends who have to be “at their desks by 8am or earlier” (as they put it—which makes me imagine some male micromanager hovering over their workspace at 7:59am, just waiting to catch them and fire them). Then they’d actually have to wake up “obscenely early,” “Like 5 or even 4 a.m.,” as Zimmerman puts it, and that is a line I wouldn’t dream of suggesting anyone cross. But for anyone who starts work at 10am or later, it’s my “unsolicited work (life?) advice” that you give working out before work a shot. What have you got to lose? (And don’t say “sleep.” Trying to go to bed early is the second part of this challenge, if you want to start on a better foot than I did trying to keep my old unfixed bedtime. Read: if you don’t schedule at least an eight-hour sleep opportunity, you’re going to be tired, and your workout, and more importantly your work productivity and social life and general attention and mood, are probably going to suffer. But you do you. If you want to learn more about how lack of sleep is screwing up your life, read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.)
If you start work early and waking up before sunrise no matter the season sounds like hell itself, I think that’s a great attitude! I’ve heard some folks in this boat or who are unchanging non-early birds no matter their start time have figured out they can work out during lunch. But that seems difficult—it can probably be done if you have a short and efficient workout (get in, lift heavy stuff, get out; or take a 30-minute high-intensity interval-training class, perhaps), ideally if you don’t sweat. I don’t really know if anyone is capable of this. (I’d say it seems like a man’s move, but I’m sure there are women who aren’t vain, who don’t sweat, who know what they’re doing in the gym, and hey if that’s you, please get in touch because how are you so perfect can you share your wisdom with us?) I tried this a few times when I started work at 9am (slowly using elliptical machines, some free weights and weight machines), but I found working out effectively without breaking a sweat was sweat-inducing in itself.
Of course, if you have an unpredictable schedule, are self-employed, or unemployed (in which case the cost of all these classes or gyms can add up, and finances can definitely kill morning workouts without any judgment), this may not be for you. But I have done this on weekdays when I work from home as well as on weekends, and I find I like the consistency to structure otherwise unscheduled days.
2. Location: Gym, Work, Home Triangulation
The other advantage I had to try out morning workouts was that my office is in a neighborhood with a wealth of ClassPass offerings and boutique fitness studios or gyms with first-class specials. I’ve found my favorite way to game my mornings is to work out extremely close to my office, just in case there’s a line for the shower or some other unexpected hiccup. The two worst-case scenarios are you have to rush your morning routine (dry shampoo instead of washing your hair, do a little less makeup, heaven forbid leave class a few minutes early and skip stretching, etc.)—or you’re so early you can either grab coffee or (second) breakfast before work or get to the office early and do the thing Zimmerman actually advises, which is get some work done before anyone has time to interrupt you.
You could probably pull this off if you have a gym close to your home. Roll out of bed and into a workout. Heck, you could work out in your living room if you want, and then shower in the comfort of your own bathroom after. It sounds great, but I think it’s sort of a trap unless you make it a habit. I also am blessed with many gym options near where I live (including a rarely used but perfectly serviceable gym in my apartment building, to my shame), but if I don’t have the risk of a missed-class fee hanging over my head, I just can’t seem to resist the snooze button. Also, maybe you prefer showering elsewhere (tip: my shower is only clean because I almost always shower at the gym. I also almost never have to buy shower products that are provided at gyms, at this point saving me untold dozens of dollars). And the thought of a long commute after that seems pretty unappealing—no matter the season, there’s the possibility of sweating so much on the subway in your work clothes that you’ll wonder why you even bothered showering after your workout.
If neither your home nor your office is close to a gym you like, I hope you don’t feel personally attacked. Fitness is expensive, and the businesses catering to fit enthusiasts probably want to open up in an area where they’ll make a profit. It sounds like the most first world problem (and there are real problems way bigger than this, such as food deserts), but fitness deserts are a reality. Short of opening up a gym or studio yourself, you could figure out a way to run before work or bike to work (ideally you don’t sweat or have the chance to shower before work, but sometimes there’s just no easy answer for every situation). Let us know how you work out in the mornings creatively and we may share your ideas.
You do you. But there are two types of people who work out.
People who work out in the morning and people who haven’t tried it.*
*Or who have the above-mentioned constraints, which are totally valid excuses not to bother.
Also, if only science can figure out what to do about lugging a huge gym bag to work, wrinkling your work clothes, and carrying around super gross sweaty workout clothes all day, I’d actually say this is the only way to go. Until science and the fitness industry can solve this (ideally in an ecologically friendly and equitable and socially moral way), I only gently suggest it.