Rise and Shine: How to Establish a Healthy Morning Routine
If you feel like a totally different person in the morning from in the evening, it's because, essentially, you are. Every cell, tissue, and organ in your body has a clock that's set to fire and fade various hormones and molecules through-out the day. In the morning, "you have higher levels of neurotransmitters like noradrenaline and dopamine," which peak early to get you going, says Nirmala Nirinjini Naidoo, PhD, a research associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. When the sun starts to set, hormones like melatonin make you sleepy. That's why experts estimate that about a quarter of us—otherwise known as "larks"—naturally feel our best and brightest in the a.m. hours.
And whether you're one of them or not, it's also why morning is the ideal time to establish habits that harness your productivity and get you in an "I've got this" groove. The secret is creating a healthy routine. "The body works better when it doesn't need to guess what's going to happen next," says Michael Breus, PhD, a high-performance sleep coach in Manhattan Beach, California, and author of The Power of When ($22.85, amazon.com). Even if it feels like a slog at first, hang in there: It takes only about 21 days for a new regimen to start to feel natural.
Wake Up Gently
Your alarm shouldn't make you think the house is on fire. The less jolting it is, the less groggy you'll feel, per a 2020 study from Australia's RMIT University. "Jarring sounds create a surge in arousal hormones that startle your body," explains Naidoo. That means you feel the Ahh! of a jump scare, not the Ahhhh... of a nice stretch. For a more soothing start, tap the iPhone's Bedtime function in the Clock or Health app to find options like birdsong. Or try Fitbit's Smart Wake feature, available on its newer fitness trackers (from $70, target.com). Set a 30-minute waking period, and the device will vibrate during your lightest stage of sleep within it. If you prefer a nightstand alarm, consider the Philips SmartSleep and Wake-Up Light (from $100, usa.phillips.com); it rouses you with a dawn-like glow. Another bonus for bedside clock users: You can dock your phone far, far away.
Sip Away Stress
Levels are highest around when you wake, because all those alert hormones are raring to go—which is a mostly a good thing. But if you feel more anxious than energized, electrolytes like potassium and calcium can help. They have an electric charge, which your muscles, nerves, and other tissues need to function well. Water enhanced with sodium chloride (another electrolyte) buoyed subjects' mood better than water or electrolytes alone, according to a 2019 study published in Nutrients. Fruits and vegetables like cucumbers, oranges, and lemons are packed with these minerals. Drop some slices in a carafe before bed so you can pour yourself a mood-booster when you rise.
B-Line to This Vitamin
Vitamin B helps manage stress and may benefit your mood, says a separate Nutrients review, and your body absorbs it better in the morning, on an empty stomach, explains Valerie Agyeman, RD, founder of dietetic practice Flourish Heights, in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Plus, you naturally eliminate excess B during the day (when you go to the bathroom), instead of storing it like many other vitamins, so it's smart to replenish your levels every a.m.
Any circadian-rhythm expert or seasoned business traveler will tell you: Sunshine makes everything better. "The light activates your brain's central clock, which regulates just about every system and cell in your body," Naidoo says. Among other things, it tells your metabolism to kick into gear and your analytical brain regions to start firing. To maximize the feel-good vibes, head outdoors for 30 minutes of cardio. Even a brisk walk releases a protein linked to improved brain function, and subjects in a small 2019 U.K. study burned twice as much fat when they sweated before breakfast, due to lower insulin levels.
Sing in the Shower
Big meeting later? Turn up an empowering tune. People felt more powerful after listening to songs like Queen's "We Will Rock You," with heavy bass and motivating lyrics, suggests a 2014 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science; after the music faded, they were more likely to take initiative. For the ultimate power move, drop your pitch an octave lower; the exact mechanism is unclear, but doing so gave subjects a greater sense of power, says study coauthor Li Huang, PhD, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France.
Power Up with Protein
Choose a satiating breakfast over a sweet one: Studies show that a high-protein meal translates into fewer hunger pangs later. "Refined carbs spike your insulin levels, so you reach for more sugar to offset the crash," says Taylor Wallace, PhD, an adjunct professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia. "But a breakfast with a balance of protein and fat sets the tone for better choices throughout the day." Even more compelling: Protein is composed of amino acids that may put you in better spirits and make you more alert. Try a vegetable omelet or Greek yogurt and fruit. If you're on the go, blend a handful of hemp seeds or peanuts (both high in protein) into a smoothie.
Do Your Toughest Task
Productivity research reveals that employees are most likely to complete work that they start around 11 a.m.—so take on your hardest to-do now, when you're most clearheaded and efficient. "The same task will take longer if your energy dips later," Breus says. (Night owls are the exception to this rule.) Plus, he adds, with your most stressful action items out of the way, you can take full advantage of another daily phenomenon: the afternoon's creative surge. Seize the day, indeed.
Understand Your A.M. Type
Some 85 percent of us don't get out of bed easily, says Breus. (You know who you are.) But we can all start strong. "The key is working with your biology," he says. If you jump out of bed, the biggest challenge for you, Marthas of the world, is making that take-on-the-world energy last. Food helps: Eat within 30 minutes of waking, which could be as early as 6 a.m.; then have a snack (like a small yogurt with fruit) around 9 a.m. to sustain you until lunch.
But if you warm up slowly? Wait until you feel your sharpest, say between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m., to have coffee. "Drink it then—no sooner—so you don't crash before your peak," Breus says. FYI: Half of people fall into this category. Those who consistently hit the snooze button should look to fitness for relief, especially if you have trouble sleeping. If so, you aren't alone: 10 percent of people suffer from insomnia. They ruminate at night, and rarely feel refreshed the next morning. If you're among them, that means your cortisol, a stress hormone that also energizes you, is lower than average—so boost it with a little exercise first thing. Even five minutes of push-ups, squats, and planks in your pajamas will help.
And if you're a night owl? One in five people feels more creative and energized at night. If this sounds familiar, "set two alarms, 20 minutes apart," Breus says. "That time allows your body to ease into the day." Then stick to emails and tasks you can easily check off until the afternoon, if possible.