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The circadian rhythm is controlled by a central clock in the brain and by peripheral clocks in skeletal muscle, adipose tissue, and other organs. Together, these clocks coordinate the expression of genes related to a variety of metabolic processes with daily light, eating, and activity cycles. New research suggests that exercising in the afternoon maximizes metabolic benefits due to circadian-driven cycles.

While light is the main driver of the central circadian clock in the brain, peripheral clocks are responsive to a number of environmental signals such as eating and exercise. When these activities are out of sync with normal light/dark cycles, as seen with shift work, metabolic dysfunction occurs. Previous research in humans has reported severely impaired glucose and insulin regulation with circadian disruption.

The investigators recruited a group of 32 males (average age, 58 years) who had type 2 diabetes or were at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Participants completed 12 weeks of combined aerobic and resistance training in the morning (8 a.m. to 10 a.m.) or afternoon (3 p.m. to 6 p.m.). The researchers measured insulin tolerance, body composition, and exercise performance before and after the intervention.

Participants who exercised in the afternoon improved their insulin sensitivity by 34 percent, while insulin sensitivity in the morning group improved only 3 percent. The afternoon group also experienced a significantly greater reduction in fasting glucose levels, fat mass, percent body fat, and exercise performance. Although it wasn’t statistically significant, afternoon exercise also tended to improve glucose output from the liver, another marker of metabolic health.

The authors concluded that exercising in the afternoon improved insulin tolerance, body composition, and exercise performance to a greater extent than morning exercise in those with metabolic dysfunction. The authors speculated that circadian cycles in skeletal muscle or cycles in body hormone levels may be the cause of this effect, although further research is needed to fully understand the impact of exercise timing on metabolism.

Link to full study. Learn more about the importance of circadian rhythms in this episode featuring expert Satchin Panda.

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