We can all agree there are numerous mental and physical benefits of walking. Whether it’s a structured walking program or simply adding 10 minutes wherever you can, walking can help improve your overall health.
The time of day when you choose to walk depends on your schedule and preferences; however, it turns out walking in the morning might be especially beneficial. Here, fitness pros explain the advantages of getting in your steps first thing — plus how to get started if sunrise exercise seems daunting.
“The earlier [you exercise] the better,” says Ellen Barrett, a certified personal trainer. One of the biggest pros of walking before you start the rest of your day is you can check your workout or physical activity off your to-do list. “As the day goes on there are many distractions and potential detours,” Barrett points out. So if you want to be sure you consistently make time for your walk, mornings are the safest way to go.
“Oftentimes reaching our goals is a matter of creating and maintaining momentum,” says Patrick Henigan, a certified personal trainer. “A walk first thing in the morning is a surefire way to create physical momentum.” In other words, if you’ve already taken 5,000 steps by breakfast time, you’re more likely to keep that trend going throughout the day and reach your step goal.
Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock. It tells you when it’s time to be awake and alert, and when it’s time to go to sleep. Because we spend so much time looking at screens, and most of us don’t wake up at sunrise or go to sleep at sunset, many people have off-kilter circadian rhythms, which can cause sleep problems. Natural sunlight first thing in the morning triggers the brain to become more alert, further resetting our circadian rhythm.
“Research shows walking in the morning can help optimize the circadian rhythm and help those who have a hard time falling asleep,” Henigan says. “Your body temperature naturally drops in preparation for sleep, and when you exercise, your body temperature increases,” explains Henigan. “It’s possible this increase in temperature in the morning can affect the circadian rhythm in a positive way.”
Walking first thing in the morning can provide a much-needed energy boost thanks to endorphins,” says says Liz Smith, a certified personal trainer. It doesn’t have to be a full-out high-intensity workout, either. For those who prefer something more moderate in intensity, a brisk 15–20-minute walk gets the job done, Smith says.
When you exercise, blood flow increases throughout your body — including to your brain, Henigan says. “This increased blood flow cuts the risk of vascular and degenerative diseases. It also boosts creativity and allows your brain to function at a higher level.” In fact, one Stanford study found walking boosts creative output by 60%.
If you’ve ever had a eureka moment during a walk, this may be why, says Bruce Kelly, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. “In psychology circles it’s known that with creative problem solving, taking time away from the issue [i.e., going for a walk] can help solve it.”
In this area, walking may have an advantage over other types of exercise. “With walking, it’s easy to let your mind wander — unlike with HIIT or biking for example — which can open your mind to other possibilities,” Kelly explains.
Some research suggests morning exercisers move more during the day, an important factor in weight loss. For example, a study in Medicine & Science shows women who walked at a moderate-to-vigorous pace for 45 minutes in the morning were more physically active during the rest of their day. Previous research also suggests exercising in the morning helps stimulate metabolism and curb appetite, preventing overeating and subsequent weight gain.
If you’re not normally a morning exerciser, it can feel intimidating to take up a morning walking habit. Here’s what experts say to keep in mind as you work toward becoming a morning walker.
You might imagine you have to roll out of bed and head directly outside for a walk. But as long as you’re getting outside within an hour or two of waking, Henigan says, you’ll still get the physical and mental benefits.
Long walks are great, but they’re also not required for benefits. What matters most is developing a habit that you stick with day after day. To keep yourself consistent, start with a 5-minute walk, Henigan suggests. Build your way up from there, until you’ve reached your desired walking duration.
If you’re likely to hit the snooze button, find an accountability partner. This could be a friend, partner or even your dog. “Get a walking buddy and make a daily date with them,” suggests Barrett. “They will make you more likely to follow through.”
A little preparation the night before can go a long way the following morning. “Set out your clothes and shoes, put your coffee on a timer and create a great playlist to get your energy up — whatever you need to get out the door and get going,” Smith says. “Remember just getting out the door is a win. Be proud that you did, regardless of how far you go.”
To become more active, try setting a simple goal to increase (and track) your daily steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app and choose a 28-day step plan to learn tips to boost your activity.