Exercise effects dependent on time of day

June 20, 2001

Peak athletic performance may be related to time of day, suggests a University of Chicago study being presented to the Endocrine Society's annual meeting, ENDO 2001, in Denver, Colorado, on June 22, 2001. The study shows that the response of the systems regulating energy metabolism and some hormones differs according to when in the day exercise is performed.

Subjects who exercised at night had much larger drops in glucose levels in response to exercise than at other times of day. Exercise in the evening and at night elicited large increases in the levels of two hormones important for energy metabolism, cortisol and thyrotropin. Exercise at other times of day had much smaller effects on these hormones. In contrast, marked increases in growth hormone levels in response to exercise were not effected by the time of day.

"The effects of exercise we observed may explain how some times of day could be better than others for regular exercise or athletic performance, as we might expect from anectdotally reported variations in peak athletic performance," said Orfeu Buxton, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow in endocrinology at the University of Chicago. "We found strong evidence for substantial changes in glucose metabolism and an array of hormonal responses to one-hour, high-intensity exercise, dependent on the timing of the exercise. Circadian rhythms, generated by our 24-hour internal clock, appear to play an important role in the complex response to exercise."

For the study, conducted in the Clinical Research Center of the University of Chicago, 40 healthy men between the ages of 20 and 30 were divided into five groups. Four groups exercised vigorously for one hour on a stair-stepper in the morning, afternoon, evening, or night. A control group did not exercise. A standard marker, the timing of melatonin secretion, was used to determine the timing of each individual's daily rhythm, his circadian "clock time."

When not exercising, the subjects rested in bed with constant glucose infusion to avoid fluctuation in their blood sugar levels caused by intermittent meals. Blood levels of the "circadian hormones," melatonin, cortisol and thyrotropin, and the levels of growth hormone and glucose were compared to blood levels for the same time of day in the resting control subjects.

The importance of timing for hormonal secretion and energy metabolism is demonstrated by the distinct 24-hour patterns of secretion for each hormonal system. One hormone may be actively secreted in a complex pulsating pattern while another may be in a resting phase.

Many circadian rhythms, such as heart rate, oxygen consumption, and cardio-pulmonary function play a role in athletic performance. Rhythmic patterns of hormonal secretion provide internal temporal organization essential to the coordination of physiological processes. Physical exercise is associated with marked metabolic changes and can elicit a variety of neuroendocrine responses. Although these metabolic and hormonal responses to morning exercise are well-documented, few studies have examined the effects of exercise at other times of day.

"Our study covers new ground, demonstrating variation in the effects of exercise at four different times of day, with circadian time precisely quantified, with a practical duration of exercise, and with a high intensity designed to elicit maximal effects" said Buxton.

Co-authors on the study include, André J. Scheen, MD, Division of Diabetes, Nutrition and Metabolic Disorders, University of Liége, Belgium; Mireille L'Hermite-Balériaux, PhD, Laboratory of Experimental Medicine, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium; and Eve Van Cauter, PhD, Department of Medicine, University of Chicago.

This work was supported by grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and from the Department of Defense. The University of Chicago Clinical Research Center is supported by a National Institutes of Health grant.

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