The Best Time to Do Everything
BY: Stacey Colino
Have you ever noticed that your mind is sharpest in the midmorning? Or that you can walk farther or faster in the late afternoon? These patterns aren’t a fluke. The reality is that your body has its own internal clock, which triggers 24-hour hormonal and temperature fluctuations that affect how you feel and function throughout the day.
Indeed, “in most people who follow fairly regular schedules and stay awake in the daytime and sleep at night, the ups and downs of most daily rhythms are quite predictable from day to day,” says Michael Smolensky, who has a doctorate in human physiology, is a consultant in the sleep medicine program at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and is the co-author of The Body Clock Guide to Better Health. This means that if you’re tuned in to your internal body clock, you can optimize your schedule so that you perform and feel your best 24/7. Here’s how:
Pain Tolerance Peaks: 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Research at the National Institute of Mental Health found that people are significantly less sensitive to induced pain in the morning than in the afternoon. No one is sure why this is, but a circadian effect on the release of endorphins may play a role, researchers speculate.
Ideal Time For: Dental appointments or minor medical procedures, like having a mole removed.
Mind Is Sharpest: 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Mental acuity “tends to rise in the morning, then it dips again at midday before rising again between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.,” says Smolensky, who is also an adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. Brain functions that are affected include reasoning skills, short-term memory, complex decision-making skills and alertness. That explains why firefighters tend to have their fastest response rates during the mid-to-late morning and between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., according to a recent study from France.
Ideal Time For: Demanding mental tasks, analyzing information, brainstorming and preparing for an afternoon meeting or test.
Time to Take It Easy: 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
It’s often called the post-lunch dip. At midday, alertness declines and people tend to get sleepy, whether or not they eat lunch. In addition, daydreaming is most frequent around 2 p.m., according to research at the National Institute on Aging. So this isn’t a good time to operate heavy machinery or handle tasks that require close concentration.
Ideal Time For: Mentally easy tasks: interacting with colleagues; making phone calls; taking care of routine administrative chores, like filing; visualizing creative solutions to challenges in your life.
Brain Gets Another Boost: 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Midafternoon provides the second mental boost of the day, thanks to natural rhythms in brain function. (For more on this, see “Mind is Sharpest” above.)
Exercise Performance Peaks: 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Late afternoon and early evening are when you’re likely to give your best performance in physical activities that involve strength, speed and power, possibly because your body temperature peaks during these hours, notes Dr. Thomas W. Rowland, a pediatric cardiologist at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., and author of The Athlete’s Clock: How Biology and Time Affect Sports Performance. You also may have more endurance and a greater tolerance for workouts since ratings of perceived exertion are at their lowest in the late afternoon and early evening, reports Rowland.
Ideal Time For: Your daily workout; running; biking; swimming; and competitive sports, like tennis or soccer.
Feeling Sexy: 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Whether it’s a matter of convenience or intensified desire, this is the preferred window of time for sex, say researchers at the University of South Carolina.
Ideal Time For: An intimate end to a romantic evening.
Finally, while these hours of power apply to many, “some people are early morning types (larks) and some are evening types (owls), so there can be as much as a four-hour difference in peak times,” notes Smolensky. In addition, “not everyone’s rhythms are as organized as they should be because of sleep deprivation and light exposure at weird times -- from computer screens or the bathroom light in the middle of the night,” he adds.
To keep your internal body clock ticking smoothly, try to keep a consistent bedtime and awakening time, advises Smolensky. Then experiment for yourself by tracking how your performance in different areas varies throughout the day, says Rowland. When you work with your body’s natural rhythms, rather than against them, you’ll feel and perform better all day long.
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal. Stacey is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.