Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
If cardio is already a part of your fitness regimen, good for you. Whether it’s running, walking, swimming or cycling, cardio can help boost your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and regulate your blood sugar levels, therefore reducing your risk for a host of diseases — including heart disease, diabetes and even certain cancers, according to the American Heart Association. For these reasons and more, the Physical Activity Guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that American adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week.
While any cardio activity is better than none at all, one of the biggest factors that plays a role in the quality of your cardio workout is when you perform it. The time of day, whether or not you’re on a full or empty stomach, and what other workouts came before it or will come after it all matter when it comes to when you choose to perform your cardio workout.
Just as with most things in life, timing is everything when it comes to cardio.
“There is a time in each day where we each experience peak energy, meaning that this is the moment when you want to move and be active the most,” explains Rachel Welch, certified health coach, yoga instructor and founder of the postnatal fitness method Revolution Motherhood . “This nuance can sometimes be challenging to notice in our current culture of screens and working from home, since these activities are constantly stimulating your brain, making you feel tired without having moved your body.”
This timing may fluctuate depending on the person. For example, if you’re a morning person , you might enjoy working out in the a.m. hours, whereas if you’re a night owl, you might like training in the late afternoon or evenings.
“Some people like working out in the morning because it gets them primed and ready for the day ahead, while others prefer to train after work to blow off stress from work,” says Jordan Hosbein, NASM-certified personal trainer and owner of Iron and Grit .
If you’re looking to optimize your workouts and healthy lifestyle in general, here are the best times to fit in cardio and the most ideal situations to schedule it into your routine, according to fitness experts:
First Thing in the Morning
Especially for morning people, doing cardio first thing in the morning ensures that you get it out of the way and don’t become too tired toward the middle or end of your day. Another benefit is that it gets your heart pumping and releases feel-good endorphins that can carry you into the rest of your day’s activities. “Twenty to 30 minutes of cardio in the morning is all it takes to get these feel-good vibes going and makes you feel good all day without being tired,” Hosbein says.
The one caveat, however, is for night owls. If you’re someone who likes to stay up all hours of the night, working out in the morning is probably not for you.
“We know sleep is vital for health, so staying up late and then getting up early to do cardio can cut into your quality and duration of sleep, which can set you up for health issues down the road,” says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., CISSN, doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness .
A Minimum of Two Hours Before You Go to Bed
From a physiological standpoint, the best time to fit in cardio exercise is within the two hours before you go to bed, according to Bill Daniels, CSCS, CPT, founder of Beyond Fitness .
“When you do cardio, your blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones are increased, which can make it difficult to wind down and fall asleep,” he says. This can lead to poor sleep, which can wreak havoc on other areas of your health.
On an Empty or Partially Empty Stomach
It’s a good idea to plan your meals around when you plan to perform your cardio workout. While you don’t want to be starving while embarking on a cardio exercise routine, you also don’t want to feel full and weighed down. If you’re working out first thing in the morning, doing cardio in a fasted state can have its benefits, notes Hosbein, including reduced digestion issues and discomfort and increased fat loss. If you choose to do cardio later in the day, he recommends doing so at least two to three hours after your last meal.
After Strength Training
If strength training is part of your fitness regimen, the best time to fit in cardio is after strength training. This, Hosbein explains, is because strength training is intense and very taxing on your body and mind.
“You want to conserve your energy for your strength-training workout,” he says. He recommends performing 20 to 30 minutes of cardio after strength training. “You’re already sweaty and at the gym, so might as well get it done if you have the energy!”
At the end of the day, the best time to fit in cardio is when you’re most likely to follow through with it and be consistent with it. Following these tips, however, can help increase the likelihood that your workout routine will work in your favor — and that you’ll enjoy it!