When to Do What: Follow Your Body Clock

No matter how much you plan ahead, some days are plain overwhelming, especially for someone who wants to live healthy. Between working hard and working out, eating right and sleeping tight, and spending time with the family and pampering the self, you have too many boxes to tick in a single day. How do you manage to do it all without feeling spent up by early evening?

A good breakfast? A hearty lunch? A consistent routine? Bingo! Plus a tiny tweak. Or shall we say a timely tweak!

Which means, you are doing everything already, why not simply do them at the time they’re done best?

There’s a Best Time for Everything, Ask Your Body

Your body almost always knows what o’clock it is (even in a dark chamber without a clock) and what you should best be doing – sleeping, eating, working out, solving puzzles, or taking meds. It has its own set of clocks (a master clock in the brain and one in each cell), known as the circadian clock.

Enzymes, hormones, and proteins are released at fixed times of the day to prepare your body for specific actions – for instance, the sleep hormone melatonin starts being secreted around 9 every night, preparing you for sleep. If you were to hit the sack by 10, say, your body would help you gladly.

So to get the most done, don’t go it alone. After all, it takes two to tango. Sync your schedule with your body clock. It’s what all living beings do, your ancestors did, Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine advocate, and modern scientists recommend.

But that’s assuming you have a fixed routine.

Routine Is a Word Your Body Likes

We know the word routine itself is a killjoy, and some of you abhor the idea of having to do everything at a fixed time. If it were only about getting the important things done in a day, some of you could definitely manage without a routine. But it’s not just about how much you can do. It’s also about what cues you are giving your body clock. Are you asking it to do something it is not naturally prepared to do at that time – like telling it to do accounts in the midday when it just wants to eat? Or go running after dinner when it wants to digest? That doesn’t bode well for your health because your body likes to function like clockwork.

Imagine the minute hand on the clock face rotating on its own whim, while the hour hand tries to keep the correct time. Sooner rather than later, the clock becomes dysfunctional. An erratic routine, that is to say, random activities at random times, has a similar effect on your body.

Fixing a routine doesn’t have to be a soul-killing boot camp. Ease yourself into it. Be patient. Exploring your friendship with your body should be not just rewarding but also fun.

Start by Chucking the Bad Habits

Prioritize sleep. It’s what repairs and recharges your body. Anything that disturbs your sleep routine is an absolute no-no.

  • Midnight snacks have no place on your routine. If you ask your body to digest a cheeseburger when it in fact is preparing to sleep, it will do neither efficiently.
  • Working out is essential, but workout before bed is ill-placed. You’d be too excited to sleep. Put at least a few hours between bedtime and high-intensity exercise.
  • Electronic devices emit a blue light that your body confuses with daylight, which it associates with staying awake. So scrolling your newsfeed or chatting with friends till you fall asleep as the television blares on is an awful idea. Keep the phones and the tabs away at least an hour before bed. But if you must use one, turn on the yellow-light mode on your devices.

Now for the right routine that syncs with your body clock.

What Does an Ideal Day Look Like?

An ideal day is like any regular day. You do essential activities like eating, sleeping, exercising, working, and relaxing. But there’s one crucial difference. You do everything at the best possible time with cooperation from your body.

If you can’t follow the routine below to the t every day, that’s all right, work within a time window.

Wake Up with the Sun: 5–6 am

The best time to wake up is between 5 and 6 am, with the sun. Your body hits its coldest core temperature at around 4:30 am, which means you are sleeping the best then. Thereafter it starts to increase, preparing your body to wake up. If you went to bed by 10 or 11 pm, you have had 6 to 8 hours of sleep.

Tip: If the wake-up time seems inhuman, keeping your sleep hours constant (6–8 hours), shift your sleep time up by 15 minutes every couple of days. You are probably used to snoozing loud alarms, even backup alarms; use wake-up lights that mimic the lighting pattern of sunrise instead. This is no boot camp!

Don’t jump into action right away. Melatonin (the sleep hormone) secretion doesn’t stop until 7:30 am. So you might be still slow and groggy. Take a little time out for personal care. This is when you usually do things like washing your eyes well with cool water (goodbye grogginess!), brushing your teeth, scraping your tongue, and gargling. If you are up for it, try oil pulling with coconut oil. Then drink a tall glass of warm water with the juice of half a lemon and get your bowel moving.

Work the Body: 6–7:30 am and 5–6 pm

Your muscles are gradually loosening up. You aren’t feeling as cold as when you woke up, or as stiff. It’s a nice time to limber up. Do some freehand stretches. Stretches done, massage yourself gently, and start exercising. You don’t have to exercise every day, though. About 150 minutes of moderate-intensity workouts in a week is good enough. On days you exercise, this is what your routine could look like.

  • Generally slow in the mornings? Do several repetitions of fast-paced sun salutations. Trust us, it’s just the getting started that’s tough. Use corn oil for a brisk massage. Now go jogging or running or any exercise that is high intensity. As you wait to cool down, do bellows breathing. Then head for a warm shower.
  • Joints slightly stiff? Perform yoga poses like mountain, boat, cobra, or bow. These give a good stretch to your muscles. Then massage yourself with sunflower oil. Exercise moderately (light cardio and weight training). You need to save some energy for the long day ahead. Wind up with cool down exercises and the cooling breathing. Take a cold shower.
  • Antsy about the day’s to-do list? Do some stretches first, preferably in the sun. Start with twisting stretches, massage yourself with warm sesame oil, and then go for light cardio and strength training. Finish the session with alternate nostril breathing and head for a warm shower.

If you have more time in the late afternoon or early evening, do gentle stretches in the morning (except ‘slow and steady’ people who need to also have a vigorous morning routine) and reserve exercise for the later slots – say, 5–6 pm. That’s when your joints are most flexible, your body temperature optimum, and your reflex at its best.

That said, if there are days when you have neither slots free, exercise whenever you can (except bedtime). The benefits will far outweigh the clock shift.

Fuel Up Right: 7:30–8 am, 12–1 pm, and 7–8 pm

No-carbs, low-carbs, no-fat, high-fat, high-protein, only veggies, only smoothies … we’re all constantly scouting for the star diet. But guess what, scientists are now saying, when you eat matters as much as what you eat. Eat within an 8–12-hour window when the sun’s out. Your body clock associates darkness with sleep and relaxation, not digestion. So if you were to eat a hearty meal of fries, burger, and soda (don’t!), say, for both lunch and dinner, you’d burn more of those calories after lunch than after dinner.

  • Breakfast: Eat after at least 2 hours of waking up. So that’s around 7 to 8. Have energy-giving, easily digestible foods, and eat till you are half full.
  • Lunch: Eat at midday, no later than 2 pm – you’re more likely to store a late lunch up as fat. The next meal won’t be until at least 6 hours, so eat your heaviest meal now. Don’t eat all you can, though (unless you have the luxury of a food coma); around 70% through the meal, you’ll find you are satisfied. That’s good enough.
  • Dinner: Eat around 7–8 pm, before the sun sets. That way, you are within the 12-hour window. Eat your smallest meal at dinner. If you’re worried that you’ll feel hungry later at night, rest easy. Your digestion slows down at night, keeping you full longer. For the same amount of food, nerves in the stomach will signal your brain that you are full sooner at night than during the day.

Tip: Give yourself some time to digest your afternoon meal. Don’t get back to work immediately, especially if you have a slow digestion. Take a stroll for about 15 minutes. If you feel a brain fog coming, don’t forage for a cuppa joe. It’s better to find a cozy corner and curl up for a power nap. Just 15 to 20 minutes should be good enough to recharge your brain cells.

You can of course have small snacks in the day should you need to, but not after dinner. Around 5–5:30 pm:

  • If you are feeling slightly peckish (highly likely if you have an intense metabolic personality), snack on a few slices of juicy fruits and cooling chamomile tea.
  • If you are feeling particularly worn out, eat a small amount of nuts, seeds, and fruits and drink warming teas like hibiscus and cardamom.
  • If you are still full from the afternoon meal, drink up some ginger tea.

Work the Brain: 9 am–12 pm and 1:30–6:30 pm

You are always smart (except maybe right after you wake up)! But there are times when you are smarter. That’s what the office hours cash on.

By 9 am, your testosterone (even women have it) levels have peaked and your cortisol levels are high, which means you are ready to take the day head-on. Start with planning your day, then jump right into action. Anything that needs critical thinking or decision making can be done now. This is also the best time for learning. Carry on till 12.

Tip: Don’t sit with a cup of coffee now. You will soon grow a tolerance and be immune to its magical power of keeping you awake and alert. Instead, stay hydrated with warm water and herbal teas.

Post-lunch, say around 1:30 pm, you are a little tired, a little relaxed even. Your brain is at its creative best now. So whether you are writing an ad copy or fashioning a new outfit from cloth scraps or cooking up a new dish, use the afternoon. In fact, if you are doing something that requires coordinated hand movement (say painting), 2:30 pm is the best time. Around 3:30 pm, you also have the fastest reaction time. So you should prioritize anything that requires you to think on your feet – sales calls, maybe?

Around 6:30–7 pm, as the day draws to an end and before you eat the last meal of the day, head out to a park or anywhere you can immerse yourself in nature. Walk around, clear your mind, and pay attention to details around you. You will gradually experience a release from the day’s stress. Being stress-free is essential for good digestion.

Relax, You Can Call It a Day: 8–9:30 pm

Dinner done by 8 pm, finish up household chores and any pesky chores left from the day. Then relax in whatever way you define relaxation. If you like to watch television or browse the Internet – remember what we told you about blue light? – set 9 pm as the deadline. It’s when your brain starts secreting melatonin, the sleep hormone. Thereafter, it’s time to wind down and prepare for rest.

If you don’t have one already, set yourself a bedtime routine. It should take about 20–30 minutes.

  • Take a bath to cool yourself down – warm or cool? whatever you like.
  • Do a light oil massage on the soles of your feet.
  • Meditate for a few minutes before you hit the bed. Don’t try to concentrate on anything. Let your mind wander. As you meditate, two types of brain waves are seen in different areas of your brain – alpha waves in the posterior part of the brain, indicating you are resting and your mind is not bothered by unwanted thoughts; and theta waves in the frontal part of the brain, which indicate you are deeply relaxed. Sound sleep is now just a few steps away.

By 10 pm, you should be in bed. Stop! Don’t go over the day’s deeds or tomorrow’s trials (this is why you should have meditated). Breathe in deeply. Having trouble falling asleep? Put a few drops of sandalwood essential oil on your pillow, lower the room temperature, snuggle up, and sleep.

Tip: If you are a chronic over-sleeper, get into bed around 10:30 pm. Set up both the wake-up light and a cacophonous alarm clock. We know it’s a battle.

Not that we need to mention it, keep the room dark and cold. However, avoid blackout curtains. Your body clock needs a cue from the morning sun to keep the right time.

What Should a Weekend Look Like?

Umm … the same, except, you may not have to slog at the office. We hear that groan, but there is something called social jet lag. It’s what happens when you follow a different schedule on a weekend. When you come back to the weekday, your body feels like it has shifted time zones. Monday blues decoded? It doesn’t stop at that though. Obesity and metabolic disorders are close on heels.

There’s a reason we root for routine.

What About Night Owls? Gently Does It

Night owls have it tough, given how early a typical American work day starts. The routine’s perfect for morning larks, the incredible people who are happy to wake up with the sun, before the alarm even when on vacation, and hummingbirds, the majority who are active in the normal hours of the day and sleepy during the night. Because they don’t have to work against their body, they have better health than the night owls. (Sleep doctor Michael Breus, however, has four categories: lions [similar to the larks], wolves [night owls], hummingbirds [bears], and dolphins [light sleepers often diagnosed with insomnia].)

If you are a true night owl, naturally gung-ho about life, death, and everything in between post midnight and droopy in the morning, don’t be hard on yourself. You can’t help it; your body clock is differently wired than the larks. They reach their peak core temperature earlier than you do. To reset your routine, keep a time window for every activity. Then when you’ve become better at sticking to those, zoom in to fix a specific time that suits you best. Gently does it!

  • Try to wake up earlier than you do by gradually and consistently shifting your sleep time ahead by 15 minutes every week.
  • Your peak performance times are more toward the evening, so just flip the order of work: mechanical (might we say mindless) work in the morning, creative in the morning or late afternoon, and critical in the evening.
  • Once your work is done, keep the evening for relaxation. Use smart lighting indoors that’ll help your body readjust to the routine of the sun.

But are you really a night owl? Or is it your lifestyle? Maybe, you are a hummingbird flying off-route thanks to bright lights, loud music, blaring televisions, constantly beeping phones, late-night cramming, binge watching series reruns, or even the demands of caregiving?

Try our routine for a week at least and you’ll know.

Best of luck!