Arrow-right Camera
News >  Features >  Health

Time to fit in a workout

Early morning exercise offers benefits both practical and chemical

It’s barely 7 a.m. and rain is pounding the gym’s metal roof. Lynn Hocking, mother of three and full-time student, is dropping to the floor for pushups and jumping up for squats.

Other women in her class at Farmgirlfit in central Spokane are whipping neon-green jump ropes under their feet, heaving weighted balls at targets high on a wall, and jumping from the floor to the tops of tall, sturdy boxes.

They’ve been at it since 6:30. By the time they get to their jobs, classes and families, they’ll have huffed and sweated through “The Grind,” an hourlong, instructor-led routine designed to deliver the same strengthening benefits as a day on the farm.

The farm girls aren’t the only ones up with the roosters. Adults looking to schedule consistent workouts checking their calendars and locating free hours before they’re due at work or their kids start demanding breakfast. And gyms and fitness studios are responding, beefing up their class offerings at the crack of dawn, or earlier.

“Once the kids’ day gets started, (a workout) just won’t happen,” Hocking, 37, said. “I just have really active, busy kids. It’s me and them during the day, and this is more for me.”

Working out early offers practical benefits. For most people, there’s not much going on at 5, or 6:30, to interfere with a workout.

“They pick a time when they don’t have a conflict, when you don’t have an excuse” not to go, said Kent Gold, who owns Spokane Boot Camp, which recently added a 7 a.m. class because its 6 a.m. class was getting too full.

And during the summer, they’re done before the heat sets in, which may explain a boost in interest in early-morning classes during the hot months.

But there may be reasons to keep it up even after the weather cools: Those who show up at early classes tend to be the most consistent exercisers over the long term, trainers say. And morning workouts offer benefits that last through the day – and even, some research has found, enable people to tap into a supply of willpower that starts out full in the morning but has drained by the day’s end.

Something for every body

It might take a special kind of morning person to arrive at the gym before dawn. Or it might not. When you start to rise early regularly for exercise, your body adjusts, said Jenni Niemann, who co-owns Farmgirlfit. It starts to wake you up before your alarm goes off.

“The people that are really dedicated, that are really trying to be consistent about their workout, they’ll work out in the morning,” Niemann said. “The 6:30 class is really becoming one of our bigger classes.”

Whatever the chosen crack-of-dawn workout, there’s likely a fitness instructor who’s willing to guide it.

Megan Poss, co-owner of Roots Yoga and Fitness Studio on North Mill Road, said the studio added 6:15 a.m. classes to its roster this summer because customers asked for them.

“It’s not for everybody,” Poss said. “But I have a couple of people who come in because it is the only time they have. They literally roll out of bed 15 minutes before class, and they have their cup of coffee in their hand. But they’re there.”

As early-morning yogis salute the rising sun, the first waves of “boot camp” participants are running the stairs.

Cycling classes at the Spokane Fitness Center’s Valley gym start at 5 a.m., said Joey Fenske, an owner. Aerobic weight-training classes start at the North Side location at 5:30.

The early-morning market’s been growing at the Fitness Center locations, too, he said. “There’s people waiting at our doors at 4:45.”

Good feelings, all day long

Stephanie Smith, 28, of Spokane, takes the 6:30 a.m. class at Farmgirlfit before heading to her job in Post Falls. It’s a way to ensure that she finishes a workout before other obligations crowd it off her schedule.

But “it’s also a good way to start the day. You feel better,” Smith said. Well, “not this second,” she added on that rainy day last week, taking swigs from her water bottle and catching her breath during a short break. “In 30 minutes, I’ll feel really good.”

Those are the endorphins, said Sarah Ullrich-French, a Washington State University researcher who studies motivation as it relates to exercise. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals that interact with the receptors in your brain to make you perceive less pain. Kind of like morphine, endorphins also trigger a positive feeling.

Endorphins’ effects are short-term, Ullrich-French said. But research shows the good feelings you get from exercise last as long as 24 hours, she said. So if you exercise early, there’s a good chance you’ll have a good day.

Some other reasons why:

• Exercise stimulates other mood-elevating hormones, too, including serotonin. Those mood-related chemicals help you deal with stress better, both physically and mentally.

• Your cerebral blood flow – the blood supply to the brain at any given time – increases, enhancing your cognitive and emotional states through the day.

• Exercise boosts your body’s ability to transport and use oxygen, including in your brain.

• Exercise reduces muscle tension, which is associated with stress. “Relax the muscles, and you tend to relax the mind,” said Ullrich-French, an assistant professor at WSU in Pullman.

Early exercise offers psychological benefits, too.

By accomplishing a goal at the start of the day, those who work out early gain a sense of accomplishment first thing, Ullrich-French said, and avoid the guilt or other negative feelings they’d experience by skipping it later.

And the tendency to skip later workouts trips people up, including those who start with great intentions.

When people postpone exercise until the end of the day, other priorities stack up. Exercise drops off the list of things to do as they’re trying to get food on the table or finish a work project.

“The biggest barrier for people doing exercise is time,” Ullrich-French said. “By and large, if you put off exercise till the end of the day, it’s not going to happen.”

Those other daily tasks might not be the only reason why.

“There’s been some great research on willpower and self-motivation,” said Sabrena Merrill, who writes educational materials for the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise. “What these researchers are finding is that everyone has a limited amount of willpower in the day. As the day goes on and you experience fatigue, stress or hunger … then you’ve tapped out your reserves of willpower.”

In other words, if you’re counting on willpower to help get you to and through your workout, there’s more of it to tap in the morning – before you use it up doing other difficult things. In their book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” psychologist Roy Baumeister and science writer John Tierney compare willpower to a muscle. It gets stronger, but also fatigued, with use.

The men and women who show up early at the gym may have found a way to flex their willpower muscle as well as their other ones – while reaping the benefits all day.

“A lot of people kind of think of that as sacred space,” said Merrill, a fitness instructor in Kansas City, Mo., “where they’re doing something for themselves.”