Ask a PT: when is the best time to do my exercises?
Before I joined SWORD Health, I worked in brick-and-mortar clinics. I never worked weekends, and rarely worked past 6 pm. My schedule was great...for me. But for my patients, it was a real challenge. Attending a physical therapy appointment might require leaving work early or slipping out at lunch. Even patients with more flexible schedules would sometimes lament about finding childcare or arranging transportation. A thirty-minute appointment could easily take an hour or even 90 minutes once travel was taken into account. When I was in a clinic, the “best” time for a patient to do their exercises was the time that worked for me, not for them.
SWORD's virtual model gives our members the power to do their exercises when AND where it's most convenient for them. Now that I work remotely for SWORD, I’m able to help our members figure out the best time to do their exercises at home. Now, when my members ask me when they should do their exercises, I tell them - the best time is when you’ll actually do them!
Research shows that people are most likely to be successful if they can create a routine based on their natural tendencies. Think about your typical day and week. When are you most busy or tired? When do you feel most energetic and productive? When do you naturally need a break in your day?
In many cases, when doing exercises prescribed by your physical therapist, the more sessions you can fit in, the better your treatment results will be. There may be circumstances where that’s not the case, but in general, daily sessions will give you additional benefits over less frequent sessions. So start by figuring out what days of the week work best for you. Can you do three sessions during the workweek and one on the weekend? Or maybe you’re busy playing outside with your kids on the weekends, so a daily session Monday through Friday will help you build the routine that sticks.
Lastly, figure out what time of day works best for you. This may vary depending on the day of the week, but try to stay consistent.
Morning: the early bird gets the workout done
Early sessions are great for a few reasons. Many people feel stiff when they get out of bed. Doing your session right when you wake up can help get your blood pumping, help you feel more nimble, and get you ready to face the day.
Another reason mornings are great for exercise is that most of us experience decision fatigue as the day wears on. Imagine your mental energy is like a cup of water. When you wake up, that cup is full. Every time you make a choice, you take a sip from your cup. All choices - from small ones like what to wear or what to eat, to bigger ones like whether to let your child watch TV or how you should prioritize your workload, drain your cup of water, or mental energy. That’s why it’s easier to turn down a cookie at lunch than after dinner or to stand your ground against your toddler’s temper tantrum in the morning than at bedtime. Your cup may be empty by lunchtime, or it may last until bedtime, depending on how big it was to start and what challenges you faced that day.
Even if you have made your health and your SWORD program a priority, the act of turning on your digital therapist and starting a session will take some mental energy, so scheduling early in the day when you have a full cup is a good way to ensure success.
Finally, we tend to have more control over our mornings. As your morning turns to afternoon, unexpected things are more likely to arise that might stop you from sticking to your plan.
Lunchtime: movement snacks to fuel your body
Midday is another great time to exercise. If you work at a computer like I do, you probably find yourself sitting for hours on end. That lack of movement is likely exacerbated if you’re working from home due to COVID-19. When you leave the house to go to work, you naturally have more opportunities to move, whether you’re commuting (even just walking through a parking lot), walking to meetings or stepping out for lunch. When your commute is from your bed to your living room and you spend your lunch break at your kitchen table, it’s easy to let whole days go by without much movement. We recently conducted a survey and found that nearly half of those who were working from home and moving the same or less than they used to were experiencing pain - compared to only 8% of those who were moving more.
Planning your session during your workday gets you up and moving. This movement is good for pain management but also for your overall health, triggering processes that help you maintain your blood sugar and impact your cholesterol production, among other things.
Trust me: the lunchtime workout will only work if you schedule it on your calendar. Block off the time and honor your appointment like you would if you were going to a physical therapy clinic. Make sure to consider when you will eat lunch as well. Try to fit in the time to eat mindfully after your session, without staring at your computer screen.
After work: turn off your computer and turn on your muscles
If the best time for you to exercise is after work, make sure to set yourself up for success early in the day by making all decisions related to exercise in the morning. You might find that your decision cup is much emptier by the time you’ve finished work. Take some time in the morning to lay out your exercise clothes, gather any equipment you need, and make sure your digital therapist is charged. Schedule a time on your calendar or leave a note in a visible place reminding yourself of your commitment to your session. The goal is to feel like you’re effortlessly and automatically starting your session. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked by trying to find your yoga mat at 6 pm.
Night: Power down with an exercise session followed by meditation
The sun has set, kids are in bed, and your computer is off - you’re ready to roll. I’ve worked with members who thrive with late-night sessions. If that’s you, just like the post-work exerciser, make sure to set yourself up to do your session earlier in the day. When you exercise, your heart rate increases and you may find it tough to settle down right after a session. If that’s the case, you may find it beneficial to end your exercise session with one of the meditations from SWORD’s Strong Mind, Stronger Body program. Meditation and focused breathing can help relax your muscles, lower your heart rate, and prepare your body for a good night of sleep.
As always, remember that your physical therapist is a great resource for helping you figure out how to fit your sessions into your day.
About the author: Megan Hill, PT, DPT
Megan Hill, Doctor of Physical Therapy, is a licensed physical therapist focused on musculoskeletal rehab and chronic pain management. She dropped her plans to go to law school for physical therapy after a knee injury from the Chicago Marathon left her in need of rehab, and she hasn’t looked back since. She’s on a mission to empower people to manage their health through exercise, education and coaching, rather than relying on passive approaches.
Megan earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Duke University and is a certified running coach.
Megan lives in Denver, Colorado, where she spends every spare second running, biking, hiking, sailing and stand up paddleboarding with her husband, Layton, and dog, Ollie.