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Move with the Rhythm 4: Optimum Timing
Circadian rhythms change your body’s metabolic landscape over the day, and there are more (or less) ideal times for specific types of activities. There are times when certain body functions are optimised, such as the morning peak in mental clarity (the best time for challenging brain-work), and night-time sleep for healing immune activities. Metabolic processes can also be disturbed by doing things at times when the body isn’t ‘ready’ for them, like eating food overnight.
Doing your physical activities at times that suit your body’s natural rhythm can make the activity easier to accomplish, improve your performance, and help keep your body-clock in sync. It also tends to reduce body-stress and the potential for damage. So, you can enhance the benefits gained from your efforts by taking your body’s natural rhythms into account when planning your activity schedule.
For many people, work hours or other commitments can make ‘ideal activity timing’ a challenge. Fortunately, unlike some body functions which have very tight circadian rhythms and don’t like disturbance at all, physical activity is open to greater flexibility, so don’t let the idea of ‘optimum timing’ become a limitation.
When considering how to ‘be more active’ in life, the most important factor is always to choose activities which are meaningful and rewarding for you, and timing them to suit your own schedule. If you ‘do it your way’ you’re more likely to keep it going in the long-term, so this should always be your first priority.
If your timing options are limited, you can also take steps to help your body adapt to your preferred schedule, and retain some of the positive timing benefits by that approach.
Certain environmental cues, like exposure to morning daylight, help synchronise body-clocks and maintain stability of daily metabolic cycles. Some behavioural cues, such as eating and physical activity, also serve as circadian triggers.
When incorporated in routine ways, like eating meals at the same time each day, behavioural triggers can encourage more stable daily body rhythms. Such routines can also help bring everything back into alignment after a period of circadian disruption.
With regular activities, like a daily walk or swim, or your twice-weekly gym workout, you can enhance the benefits by doing each session at the same time-of-day (although not necessarily in the same way).
For example, the human body is generally better primed for strong physical exertion in the afternoon, but it is quite adaptable over time, and can be entrained to ‘be prepared’ for such exertion in the morning.
Thus, if you can’t do an activity at the ideal time-of-day, choose a time that works with your schedule and be consistent about it, keeping to roughly the same time-of-day each time you do it. Your body will gradually adapt its rhythms to be more ready for the activity at your chosen routine time.
Research with athletes has found that they tend to perform better in competitions which take place at the time-of-day at which they usually train, and this reflects the body’s ability to adapt to a different rhythm over time.
In this context, consistent exercise timing has a three-fold benefit:
(1) it encourages stability of body rhythms (which means better metabolic function compared with variable timing),
(2) it reduces the body-stress associated with going against your circadian flow by giving your body an opportunity to adapt, and
(3) it gradually improves your strength and performance within the routine time-window.
When planning your activities, use the following information as a general guide.
Consider your body’s natural rhythms while also scheduling activities at times that work best for you, and try to be consistent with routine activities.
In the early morning period after waking, you are still ‘coming back into your body’ after nightly dream-journeys, and are not yet fully present. This is actually a time that calls for body-attention (encouraged by quiet physical movement) and a quiet ‘inner’ mental space. Avoid mental diversions, like TV, computer, socialising with others, etc. The focus now is just to ground and come back to yourself. Pottering about the house quietly in your normal morning routines will help you do this.
You can also engage in gentle meditative physical activities, particularly those using the legs & feet (which helps draw your energy into the physical). You may like to take a walk, or do some stretching, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, etc.
Repetitive resistance work can also be meditative and grounding if you don’t go too hard. The body isn’t really ready yet for strong exertion or jarring movements. Gentle and cruisy is the way to go at this time.
If you prefer to run early in the morning, or do something more intensive, at least help your body become ready. Running out the door as soon as you wake up is far from ideal. Instead, do a 10-20 minute warm-up session, which can help ground you and prepare your body for exertion.
If you make this a regular morning routine, your body will gradually adapt its rhythm and become more resilient against potential stress-effects at this time.
Statistically, the incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory ‘events’ is more frequent in the early hours which suggests to me that, along with the vulnerability of ‘not being fully in your body’, there is also greater physical vulnerability.
There is no real evidence to indicate that hard exercise in the morning is a risk to health, and research generally shows overall improvements with exercise studies at all times of day. However, when the various facts are viewed as a whole, it seems to me that, at this early time of day, the body just wants a chance to ‘get itself together’ and become fully prepared before being put under stress. It has just spent 8 hours totally inert, after all!
Once grounded, the body is ready for general physical activity, but morning is the best time-of-day for challenging brain activity, problem-solving, clarity and focus. Both in the body & energy field, nourishment and resources are focused in the head & upper chakras.
I usually reserve this time for any ‘creative brain-work’ I need to do, and leave the physical work for later in the day when energy resources move down into the body & lower chakras.
An exception here is physical activities which require mental alertness, focus, and complex brain-muscle communication, which are also optimised at this time-of-day.
While the brain is most ‘switched on’, you can make the best of activities which require attention to detail (like picking & packing customer orders), detailed co-ordination (like creating a dance routine), or delicate motor control (like crafting jewellery).
Your natural chronotype (whether you are an early-bird or a night-owl) can also influence the best timing of such activities for you.
As the name suggests, early-bird brains peak in the morning, so this is the ideal brain-muscle activity time for them. Night-owl brains are slower to fire-up in the morning and tend to gain focus as the morning progresses.
For example, when pianists were tested at different times of day, the early-birds among the group showed greatest precision & stability early in the morning, while the night-owls actually performed better somewhat later in the day.
Most people would be at work during the main part of the day, and limited to whatever their job entails, physical or mental.
However, the lunch break usually comes about when energy flow is focused at the heart, so it’s a lovely time for physical activities which are pleasurable and social. Take a walk in the park (smell the flowers) or a bike ride (enjoy the sights), or have some group fun kicking a ball around (be silly & laugh).
If you have been doing brain-work all morning, use the afternoon to restore the balance, give your body a good stretch and move-about, and refresh your mind with a change of activity. The brain has pretty much ‘left the building’ by now, anyway, so this is a great time to schedule your general manual tasks.
If you’re at home, get into some housework or yard-work. If you’re at the office, file paperwork, clean your cubicle, or kick the printer! If you’re a tradie, book the more routine, uncomplicated jobs for the afternoon. If you’re an outdoor labourer, this is the best time for your heavy grunt-work.
In the afternoon, energy resources are focused in the lower chakras, and your body is optimised for some serious physical exertion. At this time-of-day, core body temperature is higher, cardiovascular efficiency is at its peak, and muscles are at their highest potential for strength & speed.
If you schedule your heavy exercise work-out at this time, you can apply the most body-effort with the least body-stress. In fact, many athletes have reported their best performances in the late afternoon (irrespective of their normal training time).
If you’d rather just have some fun, go out and do some physical leisure activities … take the kids for a swim after school, play a round of golf, do a dance class, or have some wild sex.
A vigorous, stimulating physical interlude, at the end of the working day, allows you to release the day’s tension and drama from mind & muscles, relaxes you for the evening wind-down, and sets you up for a wonderfully nourishing sleep.
Avoid both challenging brain-work and serious physical exertion in the last 4-6 hours before bed, and steer away from competitiveness and confrontation. Evening is a time for winding down and going easy on yourself & others.
As with the early morning, quiet meditative activities are best. Do some gentle stretching or other meditative movement, or take a walk and watch the sunset.
This is also a good time for restful manual creative activities, like crafting a model aeroplane, doing embroidery, painting or colouring, casually playing a musical instrument (not serious practise), or even repairing a gadget (for pleasure, not work).
In the evening, the aim is to give your body the freedom to make the necessary metabolic shifts which optimise its vital sleep-time activities of repair & regeneration.
Physical activity is supported at all times of day, except night-time sleep, with only subtle variations in rhythm related to energy focus and effort, so finding a schedule that suits both you and your body should be no challenge.
While consistent routines can help the body adapt to working outside its ideal rhythm, I feel the very early morning and late evening should always be gentle times for mind & body. A gentle evening optimises sleep, which is so important for health, while a gentle first-thing-in-the-morning, by grounding you into the present, can give you the best foundation for a successful and joyous day.
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