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07/31/2013 10:04 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

The Best Time To Exercise (And The Benefits Of Scheduling Other Healthy Habits)

Dan Saelinger

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A day-to-night guide to staying fit and healthy.

By Emma Haak

Just as it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, it's better to have squeezed in a quick evening workout than -- well, you get the idea. But what if we told you that it's best to work out first thing in the morning and that other healthy activities are likewise most beneficial at specific times? Here's our daily plan for staying in tip-top shape.

7 a.m. -- Rise And Run On Empty
Yet another reason to get your exercise out of the way early: A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that working out before breakfast burns nearly 20 percent more fat than waiting until after your first meal. The study was small and conducted on men, but as lead researcher Javier Gonzalez points out, "Women burn more fat during exercise, so it's possible they could see an even greater fat-burning benefit by working out before breakfast." When you exercise on an empty stomach, your body burns more stored fat than carbs to give you the energy you need. (Still, drink water to stay hydrated.) If you work out after you've eaten, your body relies more on carbs, potentially making it harder to lose weight.

12:30 p.m. -- Load Up On Lunch
Making lunch your biggest meal could help you shed pounds. A recent study in the International Journal of Obesity followed 420 overweight or obese men and women on a Mediterranean diet for 20 weeks and found that those who ate approximately 40 percent of their total daily calories—from carbs and protein like legumes or fish, with a side of salad or cooked vegetables -- before 3 p.m. dropped an average of 11 percent of their body weight, compared with 9 percent among those who ate their biggest meal later. "Your metabolism runs on its own internal clock," explains study coauthor Marta Garaulet Aza, PhD. "If you eat your biggest meal too late, you can disrupt the body's natural cycle and it may think it's time to store fat instead of burning it for energy."

1 p.m. -- Get Your Vitamin D
Before you finish eating lunch, take your daily dose of vitamin D, which helps maintain bone health and may even protect against hypertension and cancer. D also happens to be an essential nutrient that about one-third of Americans don't get enough of, according to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics. Why should you take it with lunch? Blood serum levels are the best indicator of the vitamin D concentration in your body, and when researchers at the Cleveland Clinic had people take a vitamin D supplement with their biggest meal of the day, the subjects' serum levels shot up nearly 57 percent. "Vitamin D is fat soluble," explains study coauthor and endocrinologist Angelo Licata, MD, PhD. "It needs fat to be absorbed properly, and since you're more likely to consume the most fat in your largest meal, your body will be better able to put the vitamin to use." Just make sure your lunch contains mostly healthy fats like olive oil and nuts.

4:30 p.m. -- Be Creative
When researchers asked a group of students who considered themselves "morning people" to solve creative-thinking problems in the afternoon when they were less focused, they got 42 percent of the questions right -- 9 percentage points better than the group that answered them when more alert. "The best time for thinking creatively is often when you're not as focused," says lead study author Mareike Wieth, PhD. "Distractions may help you approach a problem differently, leading to more novel solutions."

11 p.m. -- Lower Your Blood Pressure
For years doctors have advocated that people at high risk for heart attack take an aspirin daily, but the pill may also help control high blood pressure. And taking it at bedtime is the best time, according to a study in the American Journal of Hypertension. Prehypertensive people who took 100 milligrams of aspirin before bed lowered their blood pressure significantly enough that researchers believe the habit could delay the need for hypertension meds by up to 15 years. (Morning aspirin-takers saw no benefits.) At night, aspirin reduces the activity of renin, an enzyme that raises blood pressure. And as your body reaps the benefits of a truly healthy day, you can rest easy.

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