Early birds may be more active, but night owls can catch up – Harvard Health Blog

Being an early bird has long been associated with a go-getter attitude. Early risers, or those who tend to wake up early and go to bed early, are people who naturally sleep early in the evening and naturally wake up early in the morning. For an early riser type, a 9 p.m. bedtime may be the norm, and getting up at 5 a.m. without an alarm clock feels relatively effortless.

Our internal clock controls more than sleep patterns

Being an early riser, or the opposite night owl, is generally not something that is considered to be highly in our control. Some people seem wired to sleep early, while others have a second wind and tend to sleep late. This internal clock is called our circadian rhythm, each person’s unique internal chronometer and the body’s primary controller of many functions. The most obvious are our sleep patterns; However, our internal clock also plays a role in our hunger and eating habits, our hormone levels, and maybe even our mood.

Does being an early riser or a night owl affect our health?

A growing body of research shows that we may wish to pay more attention to the circadian rhythm, also known as a chronotype. Identifying whether we’re more of an early riser or a night owl can help predict our risk for potential health problems.

A recent study of Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport looked at whether the body clock is related to physical activity levels. Using a wrist device that measures movement, over 5,000 participants’ activity levels were collected over two weeks. The researchers also determined whether each person was more of an early riser or a night owl, based on a well-researched questionnaire. After looking at some factors that might explain the differences, like education or original health issues, they found that being a night owl was linked to less physical activity. Night owls, compared to morning types, had up to 60 to 90 minutes less activity per day.

Why might your body clock and activity level be related?

In short, more research in this area is needed to be sure. Most studies on this topic examine models; there appear to be emerging trends that certain body clock patterns and certain health conditions work together. What we don’t know, however, is whether being a night owl or an early bird is the cause. But when trying to figure out why, there are a number of potential factors that come into play.

For those who have more of a night owl or an “evening” type, it can be more difficult to integrate an activity into their day. For many night owls, jobs or other time constraints can mean that a morning alarm goes off long before their natural wake time. As a result, one type of night owl can start the day relatively “jet-lagged” – feeling out of sync with their body due to being awake while the body prefers to sleep. They may also be sleep deprived if they have to get up much earlier than desired. These can contribute to less activity on a regular basis.

On days off, catching up on sleep can become a priority given the lack of sleep during the week. Sleep patterns, such as how much or when people sleep, are potentially the key here, but that information was not captured in this study. Other health problems or behaviors that interfere with sleep, such as mood disturbances, can be found more often in night owls.

If I am a night owl, what can I do?

We must emphasize that this study does not tell us that being a night owl is the cause of a decrease in physical activity. (This is true for a lot of research around our body clock, as mentioned earlier.) It just shows an association between being an early riser or a night owl and certain conditions. Also, the factors at play – sleep patterns and activity – are factors over which we have some control. Although we can be hardwired to lean to be a night owl or a morning owl, most people fall somewhere in the middle. Sleep patterns and activity are changeable, and even small changes can have a big impact over days, weeks, months, and years.

Thinking about your sleep habits is one way to use the best times of the day for more activity. Are you someone who feels ready and alert in the morning? This may be the best time to take these steps. More energy at night? It might be better to plan this walk after dinner. Using your body clock to your advantage can help you optimize the best time to be active.

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Jothi Venkat

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