You’ve heard the saying “early bird gets the worm,” but are there any health benefits of waking up early? And is it even possible to become an early riser if you’re a night owl? HUM spoke to experts about how to become a morning person—and then we tried out their tips.
It’s safe to say that I’ve been a chronic night owl since birth (I was born at 1:13 a.m., so I guess I naturally prefer to be awake at that time). Burning the midnight oil with a good book or hitting the snooze button in the morning is usually framed as a negative thing—but are morning people actually healthier?
The research actually varies. For example, morning people might be more proactive about getting tasks done sooner, while evening people might be smarter and more creative, according to Harvard University research. Meanwhile, some research claims that being a morning lark is better for your physical and mental health.
If you want to reap wellness benefits to being an early morning riser, can you shift your own lifestyle to become more of a morning person? I investigated to find out, because who wouldn’t love to be more productive in the morning? Plus, starting my day earlier would mean I’m not up working late at night (on articles like this!). Find out what sleep experts had to say about how to become a morning person, and if I was successful at trying.
What Causes People to be Night Owls vs. Early Birds?
Your chronobiology is what controls your circadian rhythms, and it’s actually genetic. One of the body’s sleep genes called the Period 2/3 gene is responsible for whether you’re a late or early riser. “The Period 2 gene determines whether you are a morning person or an evening person by regulating the timings of your basic bodily function,” says Hope Bastine, PhD, psychologist and resident expert for sleep technology mattress firm Simba. “It determines our biological timing system tendencies to wake up and go to sleep and everything in between.”
A longer Period 2/3 gene might mean you’re wired to wake up earlier, while a shorter 2/3 gene might mean you’re naturally a later riser. Because of what’s embedded in your genes, you have a sleep chronotype. Sleep chronotypes are the manifestation of circadian rhythm patterns, which are sometimes categorized as the bear, wolf, lion, dolphin, or the morning lark, night owl, or hummingbird. “Morning larks tend to wake up around 6 a.m. with their peak performance window being from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., whereas night owls tend to wake up at 8 or 8:30 a.m. with their peak performance window lying between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Bastine explains.
Since this is genetic, you might come from a family of early birds and follow suit, or you could be the only night owl in your family. “Sleep traits are heritable. Each person inherits their genes from their parents, or their lineage, but some might remain dormant for generations,” adds Bastine.
Are There Any Health Benefits of Waking Up Early?
There are a few scientific benefits of waking up early. One study published in the journal Sleep found that if your bedtime is constantly delayed or often shifts around, you could be more likely to have poor metabolic health and higher insulin resistance. Another 2021 study reported that people who were genetically predisposed to wake up one hour earlier in the morning had a 23 percent lower risk of depression.
That’s not to say you’ll definitely experience depression if you’re a night owl—it may actually have to do with external factors. “Research shows that the health benefits related to being a morning person or an evening person is more related to sun exposure. Typically, if you are a morning person, you stand to get more sunlight than someone who is a night owl,” Bastine says. “Those of us who naturally wake up at around 7 a.m. tend to be happier, cheerful, and alert…Again, I argue this is about the energy you gain from sunlight exposure.” If that’s not you, a sun lamp might help, especially during those long, dark winter days.
And it turns out the early bird trope of the productive, alert, and cheerful high-achiever could really just be social perception. For instance, it’s been proven that managers think people who choose a morning shift over a later shift are more conscientious, according to research by University of Washington Foster School of Business.
Despite this, experts maintain that the best thing you can do is listen to what your body needs—whether that’s waking up early or sleeping in a little bit later. “The research resoundingly shows that we are happier and more productive when we work in harmony with our circadian rhythm,” adds Bastine.
Maybe there’s not as big of a benefit of becoming a morning person as so many of us think. Still, call it the pressure of social perception or just my desire to get a shot of that 7 a.m. sunlight that seems to turn people into a human ray of sunshine themselves, I wanted in.
Can You Shift Your Chronobiology?
Because chronobiology has a genetic component, you can’t exactly change it all of a sudden and become an early bird if that’s not how you’re wired. But it is possible to make minor shifts in your schedule by creating small habit changes over time, says Bastine. “The brain loves routine, so keeping your original routine but making micro-changes to your schedule is far easier to manage.” she says.
The simplest way to make a shift in your sleep and wake timing is to do this gradually and slowly instead of making a big jump at once—just like when you had to get ready to go back to school after months of summer vacation. Think about getting up and going to bed just 15 minutes earlier each morning and night until you get closer to your goal wake time, suggests Ronee Welch, certified pediatric and adult sleep coach, health, life, and nutrition coach, and owner of Sleeptastic Solutions.
If you have about two hours to wind back to, it would take about eight days going in 15-minute increments, Bastine says. But in reality, it could take longer. Research published in the British Journal of General Practice says it takes about two and a half months, or 10 weeks, to solidify a new health habit, so there’s a chance it’ll take you longer to get used to your new schedule.
How to Become a Morning Person
To help me reach official “morning person” status, I set out to gradually wake up a little earlier and go to bed slightly earlier, and I enlisted the help of a few sleep experts. Here’s how to finally become a morning person, according to pros:
Create a Bedtime Routine
The first step toward having an earlier wake up time is a solid bedtime routine so your brain can more easily wind down in order to fall asleep more quickly. It’s pretty well-known that it’s not great to have so many blue light-emitting devices on at night because the light blocks melatonin production and can keep you from drifting off, but you only need to turn off your devices shortly before bed. “Stop electronics at least 30 minutes before bed,” Welch says. That means no social media, texting, calling, or Netflixing. You could also use a warm orange lamp or blue light glasses to minimize the effect of the blue light in the time before that, suggests Welch.
Journaling or guided meditation can be calming too–if one app or program doesn’t resonate with you right away, just try searching on YouTube for the right voice and cadence or music that’ll put you right to sleep (plus, it’s free!).
My plan: I often stay up late, sometimes working, and sometimes reading on an e-reader or watching a quick TV show, so I knew this would be a key habit for me to adjust. I set a goal for myself to wrap up my screen time by midnight and switch over to guided meditations at that point. But just to be safe, I also made sure to switch the settings on my phone and tablet to dim the light when the evening rolls around.
Try a Weighted Blanket
“A weighted blanket may be helpful if you have anxiety, ” says Rosie Osmun, certified sleep science coach from EachNight.com. Nighttime anxiety can be a major cause of disrupted sleep—there isn’t a ton of research out there, but one review suggests that the deep pressure stimulation of the weighted blanket helps people feel less anxious and more relaxed, like swaddling a baby would. You can certainly use a weighted blanket to calm you even if you don’t have diagnosed anxiety (everyone has at least some stress). Osmun recommends checking with your doctor if you have sleep apnea or any other respiratory conditions before trying one to make sure it’s safe.
My plan: Falling asleep at a reasonable hour is also one of my night owl-related issues (it’s easier said than done to quiet your mind before bed each night during a pandemic). To combat my own anxiety-induced insomnia, I ordered a California Design Den Chunky Hand-Knitted Weighted Blanket and used it on top of my comforter for the past couple of weeks.
Add Supplements For a Boost
If you’re staring at screens all day or your circadian rhythms are off due to something like jet lag, a melatonin supplement such as HUM Nutrition’s Beauty ZZZZ, might help support your regular sleep, according to the National Institutes of Health. B vitamins assist in producing energy in your cells, so a supplement that contains B vitamins, like HUM Nutrition’s Uber Energy could give you a morning energy boost, too.
My plan: I already have a B vitamin in my supplement rotation, so I tested the HUM’s Beauty ZZZZ supplement to help get my circadian rhythms in a better routine. It takes time to find the right supplements that work for you though, so it’s an ongoing experiment.
Consider Eating Like an Early Bird
To avoid issues like bloating, indigestion, and heartburn that could keep you up at night, finish eating your meals and any hearty snacks within two hours of bedtime, along with caffeine–which stays in your system for as long as 13 hours after you drink or eat it, Welch says. The same goes for alcohol, which may put you right to sleep but be disruptive to your sleep quality, she adds. If you need a midnight snack, go for something that has whole grains or protein to tide you over until morning, like yogurt, or a bowl of cereal.
Being consistent with meal timing may also help regulate your circadian rhythms. “Try to follow the same rough structure throughout the day, such as taking your meals at roughly the same time every day, which will help you keep your sleep schedule on track,” Osmun adds.
My plan: Overall, I’m not a big coffee or alcohol drinker, but I do have a nighttime sweet tooth. I made sure to stay away from midnight snacking and satisfy all my snacking by 10 p.m. so it fits in that two-hour window before bedtime.
Set a Morning Routine, Too
The best way to start your day is some bright light, which can help your whole sleep cycle too. “Getting sunlight or artificial light exposure in the morning can help you fall asleep more readily at night,” says Osmun.
That could be a light box, which studies show can help you shift your circadian rhythms with just 30 minutes of exposure each morning, and can also quell the effects of seasonal affective disorder. You could open your blinds and look at your phone to wake up your eyes and get you up and moving. You might also journal in the morning to write out all of the things that make you excited to get out of bed. “Find a set of enjoyable activities that you look forward to doing in the morning,” Welch says. “That could be working out or going for a walk, or listening to your favorite podcast, or even jumping on social media.”
My plan: This is the hardest part of the equation for night owls—we can’t wake up in the morning. I definitely need all the help I can get when it comes to waking and getting up, so I decided to try all of the above. I set my alarm earlier, checked my phone first thing, and used Verilux’s HappyLight Alba (which, trust me, gives off extra-bright light in the morning). Luckily, I already hop on my phone as soon as the day starts, but it’s helped to save time to reply to friends’ texts and social media messages first thing in the morning with fresh eyes rather than with groggy, blue light-saturated eyes the night before.
Exercise First Thing, If That Works for You
Wondering how to become a morning workout person? The simple answer is to get up and immediately exercise. But if you’re simply set on becoming a morning person, you should exercise whenever works best for you. “It’s best to exercise whenever you can and when you will feel motivated to do so,” Osmun says. “That may mean a morning workout, exercising after lunch, or unwinding after work with physical activity.” Just note that if you’re doing a really heavy HIIT or weight lifting workout late at night, your body might be wired and have difficulty winding down (a Sports Medicine study recommends stopping all vigorous activity by an hour before bedtime). Keep exercise light and gentle before bed, like stretching, yoga, or Pilates, adds Osmun.
My plan: Occasionally I’ll feel awake enough to sneak in an early-morning yoga flow, but honestly, that usually isn’t that realistic. I like to have breakfast and get my work day started and then take a midday workout break once I’m craving a bit of an energy refresh. The goal is to keep everything the same time-wise as much as possible, so I aimed for a 1 p.m. workout each afternoon.
Try Not to Hit Snooze
“Some sleepers may find it helpful to keep an alarm clock away from the bed, so they have to get out of bed to shut it off. Many sleepers even find that when they have a healthy sleep schedule, they wake up before their alarm is due to go off,” Osmun says. So basically, if you get enough sleep in the first place, you may not have to ever hit snooze.
My plan: I am a chronic snooze-hitter, so I tried to break this habit and wake myself up right away with bright light. With the lamp in my face, I had no choice but to wake up without rolling over for that random nine extra minutes of super light sleep.
Overall, I’ve been aiming to get to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier, closer to 12:30 instead of 1 a.m., in order to wake up 15 to 30 minutes earlier (about 8:25 a.m.) for about two weeks. I’ll admit—I probably wasn’t strict enough about my bedtime when I started out. Throughout these past couple of weeks, while I was still reading, I often peeked at the clock as it inched closer to 1 a.m. So I was a bit less successful about going to bed earlier, but succeeded with the 8:25 a.m. wakeup time. That said, I ended up being quite a bit more tired by the time bedtime rolled around. (“Early to bed, early to rise” is harder to put into practice than it sounds!)
So far, it’s the weighted blanket that does the trick for me—it almost traps you under the covers (in a good way) and forces you to fall asleep. I also wasn’t going to give up my favorite unwinding practices of Netflixing and reading, but I’ve been trying to be better about shutting my phone, Netflix, and e-reader off 30 minutes before drifting off in order to make some time for guided meditations. I can’t guarantee it’s always a full half-hour before I end up asleep, though. Those guided meditations, most of which have a quiet, slow, measured voice repeating sleepy affirmations, put me right out.
In the morning, I opened my eyes and immediately reached for that phone and light box, especially on gray days, so I would be extra-awake to check my phone and start making breakfast. I noticed a major difference in mood and productivity when the sun was out, and I had the combo of the phone and light box to wake me up. (Honestly, I felt like the Energizer Bunny.) But on days that were significantly less sunny, I was dragging my feet and struggling to get moving throughout the whole day, no matter what healthy habits I employed. But I didn’t beat myself up about it—that’s something that’s out of my control.
All in all, curating a more regular routine both at night and in the morning made me feel like I at least accomplished something. Am I going to be a 6 a.m. workout person? Never. I’ll always be a night owl, but I’ll be able to have a little more time and energy in the morning when I focus on my sleep habits. And, of course, I can always blame my genes.