Want to become a morning person? Go for a walk
Regular walks can help start the day right—and help you sleep better at night.
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Earlier this year, I came to terms with the fact that the lingering darkness of winter mornings leaves me sluggish. So when spring sprung a few months back, I opted to try something new. I started going for a walk around my neighborhood, throwing on some athletic leggings and my trusty Saucony shoes as soon as I got out of bed. Now, most mornings I walk 4 miles to start the day.
The results were nearly immediate, even though my distance started out much shorter: I have more energy, time, and footsteps logged onto my fitness tracker (if I remembered to put it on). I’m thrilled I got into the habit—let my experience inspire you, too.
What are the benefits of going for walks?
The health benefits of walking are too many to enumerate, but some of the big ones include cutting your risk of heart disease, lowering blood pressure, increasing cardiovascular health, and making your bones older-age proof. Walking also strengthens muscles and bones and can help you to maintain or even lose weight, in particular that dreaded and deadly visceral fat from the waistline.
What I didn’t know when I started this new part of my morning routine, however, was that I’d sleep better and, more importantly, wake up easier.
How are morning walks good for you?
When I first decided to spice up my morning routine, the outside New England air was frigid and blustery. But I zipped my coat, dropped my kids at their bus stop, and set out for my walk, going up to 4 miles—or about an hour—through the neighborhood. I walk the same path every time, passing by dark brick houses on tree-lined streets. It’s not a challenge, as I live at sea level and the terrain is a mostly flat loop. I’ll admit, this started because coffee had lost its power. The doldrums of winter left me too tired for the gym in the morning. The constant lethargy left me excited to do little else for myself, aside from drink wine on the couch and watch Netflix’s "Selling Sunset" in the evenings.
When you wake up in the morning, walking for miles may not be your first priority. To be fair, I’ve always walked and been a bit of a gym rat. Someone starting a new exercise routine might find 4 miles too much at first. But it’s wise to view the time as an investment in your health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends folks get 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week, so just three mornings would put you on a path to good health.
While you can get a good walk in at any time of day, by getting in your steps in the morning, you get your exercise out of the way. There’s some evidence that shows consistent morning exercise is best and most effective, as it’s harder to skip out on if you just get up and go.
Will walking help me sleep?
Exercise and sleep are inextricably linked, whether you hit the gym, attend pilates classes, or, yes, go for walks. Daytime exercise—at any time of day—may be helpful when it comes to falling asleep at night. Even as little as 30 minutes of getting your heart rate up can help ward off insomnia.
That said, exercise also has the potential to rouse for some people. That’s why it can be important, especially for those who have trouble sleeping, to refrain from intense exercise late in the evenings. This logic can be applied to help get your day started—another point in favor of my morning walks.
“One of the problems I see is that people try to walk up slowly and they don’t break sleep patterns,” according to Sam Iannetta, a corrective exercise specialist and owner of Functional Fitness, located in Boulder, Colorado. “Our brains aren’t adjusting because we are hitting the snooze button, we stare at our iPhones, we’re asleep when we drink our coffee, we don’t have that break to let our bodies know it is time to wake up.”
Getting the early morning’s high-density oxygen, which is often cooler in temperature, can be as valuable as accomplishing something, he says. “This is an active decision to engage in the world, break the sleep cycle,” he says. “You’re accomplishing something right off the bat and it helps with self esteem.”
I can attest to both of Iannetta’s points. In fact, I never planned to keep walking regularly in the mornings. It started one day, spur of the moment. Once I saw the difference to my mood and wakefulness, though, I kept doing it.
What are the sleep-related benefits of walking outdoors?
Even more, an early dose of sunshine helps the day along. The best benefit of sun exposure is Vitamin D production. Sleep-wake behavior is directly tied to sunlight. Sunlight sends our pituitary gland, a pea-sized, hormone-producing chamber at the base of your brain, signals to wake up. I even noticed I’d work out harder at the gym later in the day if I had gone on a morning walk!
If you’ve ever suffered from jet lag, getting morning sunlight may even help adjust to the new time zone, says Tarama Hew-Butler, DPM, PhD, FACSM, and a professor of exercise and sports science at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. “Sunlight, or daytime, is the strongest external cue, or "zeitgeber," which sets our circadian rhythm to a regular 24-hour daytime-nighttime cycle,” she says. “So, sunlight does help us wake up.”
How can you start your own walking routine?
Most people can start a walking regime, assuming they are so mobile. It doesn’t take much and is easily tailored to your fitness level by choosing the appropriate distance, pace, and terrain. You’ll, of course, need good walking shoes. If you’re heading out for several miles, it’s worth having sneakers that fit your feet properly, whether you have flat arches or wide feet.
Plenty of folks I see in the mornings wear wireless earbuds. I still have the corded earbuds that came with my original iPhone, many generations ago, and I’m completely content with them. Somedays, I’ll walk without listening to anything. I find it’s a great way to decompress from the constant flow of information.
If you live in a place with unpredictable weather, like New England, you might consider some layered clothing. And athletic clothing is great but not required.
So if you’re looking for a way to boost your morning routine, or simply wake up faster, consider starting a morning walk. You won’t be disappointed.
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