Making the Case for Early Mornings (To Fellow Night Owls)

The philosopher Aristotle said, “It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom.” More colloquially, you may have heard the old Benjamin Franklin saying: “early to bed, and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” And even if that quote has somehow slipped past you all your life, without a doubt you were told by someone at some point “the early bird catches the worm.”

Yes, I am revisiting the age-old question: is it better to be a morning person or a night owl? A quick Google search will tell you it’s still a fiercely debated topic, and I will admit that both sides have valid arguments. However, as someone who is not naturally a morning person but chooses to wake up early, I believe I can provide a unique perspective on the subject. That’s right, I choose to wake up at around six o’clock in the morning each day. Something that is perhaps even more crazy to some: I immediately begin my day with a short workout. For those of us who don’t pop their eyes open in the morning and greet the sunrise with a smile this is no easy feat, but I have been amazed at how much being active in the morning energizes me, and that energy continues throughout the day.

It’s unfortunate for those of us who enjoy a good lie-in, but both anecdotal evidence and science can back up the advantages that come with early rising. Some of the most successful people in the world have rising times that are even more outrageous than mine — Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is said to get up at the crack of dawn for a six mile morning run each day, and former FLOTUS Michelle Obama is working out by 4:30 in the morning. Apple CEO Tim Cook starts his morning routine at an audacious 3:45AM. Clearly these people are all masters of productivity and time management, but there also appears to be a correlation between achieving these traits and making the decision to wake up early.

If it makes you feel any better, according to research from the University of Manchester, your chronotype (the formal term for “morning people” and “night people”) has a strong genetic basis and can even be influenced by the season you were born in. If you were born and experience your first months in the summer when the days are longer, research suggests that you are more likely to be a morning person in adulthood, and although whether we are a naturally a morning or night person appears to be out of our control, research indicates that those who are early risers are overall healthier than their late-rising counterparts. The University of Manchester found that self-ratings of health, smoking, number of medications, alcohol use patterns, exercise habits, and quality of sleep were all higher for early chronotypes, and even when it came to actual health indicators evening types were at a higher risk of hypertension and had higher scores on a measure of metabolic health that took cholesterol and obesity into account.

The benefits don’t end there. Below are some other health advantages to shifting your schedule. Here me out here, and I’ll also give some tips on how you can work to shift your habits forward and gain some of these benefits yourself.

You may exercise more consistently

I personally cannot imagine having a solid and consistent exercise routine if I didn’t wake up early in the morning to do it, and it seems that the experts agree. According to Cedric Bryant, PhD., chief science officer with the American Council on Exercise, people who exercise in the morning tend to do better at forming a consistent exercise habit. Exercising in the morning means that you are less likely to find excuses to skip it, such as an unexpected work deadline or traffic slowing down your commute. There is also a scientific explanation for the energy boost I feel from exercising first thing in the morning: when you work out, oxygen and nutrients travel to your heart and lungs, which improves your cardiovascular system, endurance and overall stamina. Regular exercise is excellent for boosting energy and reducing fatigue, and by exercising early you are able to ride the wave of these benefits throughout the day, making you feel more energized.

You could be more productive

Like Tim Cook or Michelle Obama, by starting your day early you can give yourself a much needed edge over everybody else — while the rest of the world still sleeps, you are already well on your way to completing your to-do list for the day. While rising later doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from being a go-getter, waking up early allows for fewer distractions and gives you the chance to define your goals for the day. A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology even found that morning people tend to be more proactive than their evening-type counterparts, and were more inclined to use positive language, outwardly portray confidence in their daily interactions and assert themselves on a regular basis.

It can affect your weight

Per a study published this past spring by Northwestern University, the timing of your exposure to light can influence your weight. According to research, people who got most of their light exposure for the day in the morning had a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who got most of their light later in the day, regardless of how active people were or how many calories they ate. The study’s senior author said of the research that light is the most potent agent to synchronize your internal body clock that regulates circadian rhythms. This in turn regulates energy balance, meaning if you don’t get sufficient light at the appropriate time of day your internal body clock could de-synchronize. This is known to alter metabolism, which can in turn lead to weight gain.

You are less likely to have depression

Being a night owl can affect more than your physical health and productivity; it can also affect your daily mood and anxiety. According to a study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, those who have an inconsistent sleep cycle (a trait more associated with night owls) are more likely to report anxiety and depression. The study used sleep data gathered from wrist activity monitors worn by more than 85,000 participants in the UK Biobank Study, and showed there can be serious consequences to a skewed internal body clock. The world functions in daylight hours, which means that a night owl’s sleep patterns are more likely to be inconsistent as we try to follow our body’s natural tendencies and society’s working time. Morning people are much more likely to have a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends when they aren’t expected to be at a certain place at a certain time.

You’ll gain more quality time with those you love

As a dermatologist with my own practice I can’t speak enough to the extra bit of time with my family I have in the morning thanks to waking up early. Instead of rushing around trying to get ready for work, by the time my children are waking up for school I am already showered and ready to go, and can spend my time helping them get ready for school and sitting with them for breakfast. Also, by starting my day early I make sure there is less of a likelihood that I will get trapped at the office doing paperwork or stuck in traffic and miss spending extra time with them in the evening. A moment shared with your loved ones is one of the best things in the world, and waking up earlier to make it happen is definitely worth it.

Even if I’ve managed to convince you that an earlier rise will be beneficial, the idea of changing your habits and schedule may be a daunting enough idea to prevent you from attempting it. There’s no denying it’s a difficult feat, but small incremental changes can sometimes make all the difference, and these tips may help get you started.

First and foremost: start slowly. If you try to make a four hour leap from 10 in the morning to six from the start you may end up feeling so awful that you won’t notice any of the other benefits and quickly revert back to your prior habits. Instead, try waking up just a few minutes earlier each day. It may take longer to get to a point where you’re consistently waking up earlier, but it will allow your body to acclimate to a new schedule slowly and therefore make it easier for you to continue the habit.

Secondly, to give yourself an extra boost of motivation, find something to look forward to in the mornings. If you go to bed dreading the idea of waking up early to work out, maybe save that for once you have established a consistent schedule, and instead pick up that book you’ve been meaning to read for ages and read it on your porch with a steaming cup of coffee. Early mornings are a time when there are little to no distractions, so use the time to do whatever you find enjoyable and you’ll find yourself looking forward to those extra hours.

Of course there are advantages and disadvantages to “morningness” and “eveningness.” Apparently morning people may be worse baseball players than evening types, who also tend to score higher on general intelligence tests. However, we live in a world in which society functions during daylight hours, and by training your body to be at its peak for as many of these hours as possible, you just may set yourself up for a more productive and successful life.

Connect with Tim Ioannides MD on LinkedIn and Crunchbase.

Dr. Tim Ioannides is the founder of Treasure Coast Dermatology located in Port Saint Lucie, Florida