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Circadian rhythms and the power of habit

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On a genetic level, our bodies work in cycles which repeat themselves every 24 hours. In exercise science, this is called your circadian (from the Latin "around the day") rhythm. It works on different levels and has a strong impact on your whole body. While the central mechanism remains stable, we can influence many important athletic attributes by how we act throughout the day. To stabilize good rhythms, consistency is key, as training specialist Christian Soetebier explains.

Circadian Rhythm Genes

The genes that drive our circadian rhythm are present in every cell of our body, but the master clock controlling them sits within the brain and is connected to our eyes. This is why daylight is the most important signal for the time of day for our body. Such a signal is also called a “zeitgeber”, German for ‘time giver’. However, light is not the only signal our body uses to adjust its rhythm...

Why stable habits are key

Our bodies are very complex intertwined systems that follow regular patterns. The more we respect those patterns and stabilize them, the better our system works. The less we follow them, the more negative effects we feel.

It is therefore important to use the power of habit to our advantage and boost our performance and stay healthy.

How you start and end your day really matters

Our primary zeitgeber is light, which reaches our brains through our eyes. This process begins the moment we open our eyes in the morning and continues until we close them again to sleep. The amount of light we receive depends on time of day (i.e. the activity of the sun) and other artificial light sources (like your smart phone or your computer).

Our body measures the process of moving through our circadian rhythm throughout the day according to the amount and quality of light it receives. However, it loses its orientation when exposed to different signals at times of the day when it’s not expecting them. To keep your rhythm stable, try to stay consistent in your wake-up and sleeping times. In particular, try to avoid too much exposure to artificial light during the later parts of your day.

When you work out matters

Exercise is a secondary zeitgeber and sets time for our peripheral muscle cell clocks. This means that muscle metabolism and strength also follow a circadian pattern which is easily regulated by following a regular workout schedule.

Our muscle cells have their own internal clock and so our muscles’ strength and metabolism are also bound to our circadian rhythm. Therefore, it’s not only the type of exercise, but also the timing of your exercise that matters. Having a stable exercise habit can really enhance your performance, especially for harder workouts or competitions.

For example, if you train in the morning every day, you’ll be stronger, faster and have more endurance at that time of day compared to in the evening. The same is true for any other time of day as long as you perform your workout at the same time consistently.

Let’s recap:

Developing regular habits regarding light exposure and exercise can help keep your body’s circadian rhythm more stable on a genetic level. By keeping light exposure and workout timing regular throughout the week you can reap the benefits of your circadian rhythm and perform at an optimum level.

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