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Which is Better: Exercising Before or After Breakfast?

By , and Tanya Jolliffe
If you're an early-morning exerciser, it may seem difficult (or downright impossible) to find the time or desire to eat breakfast before a pre-dawn workout. It's already tough enough to wake up for that 6 a.m. boot camp or three-mile run, much less carving out an extra hour to prepare, eat and digest a meal.
Some people prefer to sweat on an empty stomach, while others may get dizzy due to low blood sugar. Research findings are mixed. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that people can burn up to 20 percent more body fat by exercising before breakfast, but other experts claim that depriving the body of fuel before a workout can result in a loss of muscle mass.
Ken Immer, the chief culinary officer for Culinary Health Solutions, maintains that the before-or-after breakfast decision should hinge on the energy requirements of each individual. "People are very different. Some bodies work better when relying on stored energy, while others need newer fuel for the best performance," he says. "I believe that it's never a good idea to exercise on a full stomach, so the timing is a crucial element."
Health and wellness coach Lorraine Miano advises against exercising without fuel. "The downside to fasting before exercise is that you may burn muscle along with fat if you haven't had a meal," she warns. "Without some fuel, you may burn less calories if you are lacking energy and can't give it your all."

5 Questions to Ask Before Choosing Breakfast 

When Immer is working with a client who is planning a strenuous morning workout, he steps them through the following questions:
  1. What time is your workout, and are you a morning person? Is it generally easy for you to wake up?
  2. Do you currently eat breakfast daily? If so, what do you eat?
  3. Would eating breakfast before exercise cause any issues with your schedule or impact your ability to fit in your workout?
  4. Do you like smoothies and/or juices? Do you have the equipment to make them easily?
  5. Is there a restaurant or food store on the way to where you work out that is convenient and budget-friendly?
For those who are doing a less strenuous workout that doesn't require as many calories, Immer recommends basing their breakfast decision on the timing of the rest of their day and how they feel during the activity. "It's also important to consider the goals for exercising, whether it's weight loss, training for a competition, weight maintenance or just for fun," he points out.

What Happens When You Exercise on an Empty Stomach? 

During exercise, the body normally uses free sugars from cells and circulating blood sugars as its primary source of fuel. When you exercise on an empty stomach, the free sugars are depleted very quickly. In the absence of free sugars, the hormone glucagon is released, which initiates the release of free fatty acids from fat stores, a process known as lipolysis. Although more fat is used after hours of fasting compared to workouts following a meal or snack, most people may find it difficult to exercise as long or hard as they do when they have eaten recently. This may mean that you don't burn any more total calories, which may negate the fat-burning benefit.
The question of whether to eat before or after exercise comes down to understanding the best way to achieve what priorities are most important to you. "For example, if you are someone who needs to eat before exercise and you have a hard time just getting up early enough for the workout, adding in breakfast time may not be an option," says Immer. "So, perhaps not working out in the morning is the best option, which makes the before-or-after breakfast question a moot point."

Pre-Workout Breakfast Tips

  • Plan ahead. When you prepare a healthy breakfast the night before, you won't have to fumble for ideas and ingredients while your brain is still waking up.
  • Keep it light. Registered dietitian Mandy Enright, creator of Nutrition Nuptials, advises her clients to have a small amount of food before a morning workout, such as a handful of cereal, small piece of fruit, yogurt or a small probiotic smoothie. "This won’t create an overly full stomach before a workout, but will provide adequate energy to kick-start the body."
  • Keep reinforcements on hand. If you plan to work out after only a light breakfast (or none at all), keep a carbohydrate gel or sports drink handy in case you begin to feel lightheaded. Be sure to eat a nutrient-rich and well-balanced breakfast once your workout is complete.
Do you notice a difference in your workouts when you eat (or don't eat) breakfast beforehand? What do you usually eat before exercising?

Updated by Melissa Rudy, 1/3/2017

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I find that this works for me. As soon as I wake up I have an apple or a banana. Then continue to prepare for the day. Dishes, meal arrangements, set out clothes e.t.c. After about 20 minutes I begin my workout which lasts anywhere between 45 - 75 minutes. Shower right after workout and then healthy breakfast. If I have done weight training or need a long bath then immediately after workout I have a protein shake. and regular breakfast after shower.
Alternatively if it is my light workout day just 25 minutes on the treadmill then I can do that without a fruit before. Report
I work out better on an empty stomach. If I'm hungry, I'll eat something light - a banana, apple, or if I'm low on carbs I'll have some toast or something... but much more than that and I feel like I can't get a good workout in. I workout in the AM 2-3 times a week and in the PM 2-3 times a week and at all times I prefer to not eat anything a least 3-4 hours before. However, there have been times when I've felt lightheaded doing this. I think you learn to gauge yourself and how you feel before a workout. If I wake up hungry, I eat before a workout. If I'm so hungry I eat more than a little snack, I work out lighter. It's all about safety while you're getting your healthy activity in! Report
Whenever you possibly can carve out the time! In this busy world we do what we can WHEN we can! Report
For me, I have tried both ways but find i do better with some food in my stomach before i exercise. Sometimes i will eat a protein bar before hitting the exercise routine which also helps. But i am not one to rise in the middle of the night to start exercising! Report
I cant exercise after I eat...for some reason if I eat early in the morning and then go out to run, it makes me really sick where I can't finish my run...so what I do it my strength training first then drink milk with chocolate and go out for my run. I make sure I drink a lot of water and my green tea before hand but to eat food would just ruin it. I exercise three times a week early in the morning and that has been my route since the second day because the first day I got sick and didn't even finish so not eating for me works but i would think it depends on the person, some can't exercise without eating first and others can, I say do you what makes you feel good and keeps you on track Report
I exercise between classes, so I end up eating a banana in class 1, some cheerios/almonds in class 2, working out for an hour, and then eating lunch an hour or two later in another class or back at home. I've sort of lost the concept of three meals a day, what with my day being so segmented. The bottom line for me is that I like to eat something beforehand if I can space it about an hour before my workout. I can't eat and then immediately run, or I feel gross. Report
I drink some milk, with or without tea, before I exercise just to fuel me through my morning workout. Right after working out I'm not hungry, so I shower and then eat breakfast. Report
I just start working out at the gym but I have to eat something before I work and as soon as I finish working out I have to have a snack Report
I've never been much of a breakfast eater. I almost always exercise before eating. I never have any problem with dizziness. If I eat before exercising, I feel full and lethargic.

I didn't have a choice in the matter when I was in the Army - it was morning PT at 6 am, 5 days a week for most of my 4 years. And the mess hall wasn't open early enough to eat before PT, so you did PT on an empty stomach.

Now that I'm getting myself back in shape, I find that I need to follow that same routine, except now I have to get out at 5:00 am. There's NO WAY I'm getting up any earlier than I have to; I do C25K on a few sips of water (don't want to slosh or need a pit stop). So far, so good.

I don't always do this; some days I work out in the afternoon. Some days I do both, like today. I do try to make sure I have something at least 1/2 hour before I do afternoon sessions. Report
I eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, putz around for half an hour checking my emails and what-not, and then go exercise. I get hungry if I don't and I feel like I can exercise harder if I have some food in me, but I have to let it digest a little before I go work out. I also drink a glass of water during that "putz" time. If I'm dehydrated when I work out the WO is always a lot more difficult for me. Report
I'm definitely a morning person when it comes to exercise. I actually hate eating before I workout. I'm usually NOT hungry when I wake up, so I just skip it. But I do try to eat a solid breakfast as soon as I finish my post-workout shower. Report
I work out pretty early in the morning so I'm usually not hungry before working out. If I feel like I do need something I usually eat part of a powerbar. Report
Like another commenter said, I usually have a glass of apple juice or banana or something with instant sugar before my morning run. If not, I get dizzy quickly. After, I have a protein bar or protein shake. It's a balance to get it right - if I have a protein or energy bar beforehand, I usually get a stomach ache when I run. If I have nothing before, I get dizzy and lightheaded - and then feel bad b/c I haven't performed well. I try not to give myself built-in excuses like not having fuel before working out. Report
I will usually have juice or a shot of honey if I'm exercising in the morning. That way I have a little something in my system and my stomach isn't upset. Then I eat a real breakfast after I workout. Report
I am in the minority here because I usually work out before breakfast. Funny thing is the rest of the day I do feel weak and lethargic if it has been more than several hours since I ate but first thing in the morning I am full of energy. After my workout I'm ready for breakfast though! Report
I run at 5:00 am most days and try to at least have a banana. Anything else will upset my stomach. Report
I have to eat before a workout, as an instructor it is important that I challenge not only myself but members. If I workout on an empty stomach I feel weak and
sometimes dizzy. But this is also true when I eat something heavy before a workout . It seems like I have less energy and get nuasested. So I stick to yogurt about and hour or 2 before a workout. I also need to eat about 2 hours after a workout or I feel tired. Report
This is the main reason i don't work out early in the morning. I am one of those people who needs to eat breakfast so that i don't get dizzy/faint or ill. i have not been willing to get up early enough to eat breakfast first. i really wish i could, but it has never worked for me. i do like to have a small snack 1/2 - 1 hour before running or working out. Report
I am borderline diabetic so eating before I work out is very important. Without breakfast I become very dizzy. Report
I definitely notice a difference in a hard workout if I haven't eaten before. I have to have breakfast if I'm going to work out to my full potential. It doesn't matter as much if it's a less intense workout, such as walking, for me, but I think it's better to eat first. Report
I feel that you must eat breakfast first; your body requires sustenance after fasting thru the night. Report
I don't do morning workouts usually, but I always pay careful attention to my food intake before and after my workouts. I make sure I get a boost of carbs beforehand and some protein in whatever I eat after. If I time things right, I can make my body feel great during my workout and feel refreshed long after too! Report
I don't usually work out in the mornings, but regardless of the time of day I exercise, I always prefer to eat something before I go. As long as it's light it doesn't bother me to eat immediately before exercise or even during a break, and I can work out much more intensely when I'm not hungry! (Being well-rested and having had my coffee help a lot, too.) Report
I exercise before I eat breakfast for 2 reasons: 1) if I don't get out and exercise within 15-30 minutes of getting up, I'm not exercising; 2) my dog needs to relieve himself and walking lets him take care of his business as much as he needs to. I'm not hungry that early in the morning (6-6:30 am). I usually drink 16 oz of water before we walk and eat later.
I eat a Trader Joe's cereal bar as I'm heading out the door before my morning walks. It's just what I need and gives me the right amount of energy. Report
I agree with GREENEYES_78. For most exercising I will at minimum drink a protein drink before exercising. However, if it is yoga, I will exercise first as the positions one must get into to can are not exactly comfortable if food is jostling around in one's stomach (and one can't exactly relax if one is afraid they are going to up-chuck). Report
Since I eat every three to four hours. I eat breakfast first. Then I workout. Within an hour of when I am done with my workout its within an hours time to eat again. So I also get a meal within one hour after eating. Report
I usually have a protein shake about 30min before my morning workout, because if I eat something that needs chewing up, it feels like everythings going to come up..
so with a drink I don't feel any discomfort in my stomache or exhausted and can push myself a bit harder Report
I need to eat before a workout, and then wait about 30 minutes after eating. Otherwise I've got not energy plus I'm feeling sick. Report
It may be different for other people, but for me this depends on what kind of exercise I do. If I'm doing aerobic exercise, something relatively vigorous, then I eat before I work out. But if I'm doing yoga, I wait to eat until I'm finished working out. Report
I used to workout before eating but after hearing some stuff about how bad it is I started making a point of eating a little something. Since I workout at home and therefore have a very short window between getting up and exercising I would set out a small snack so I could have it first thing. I would have a little protein and a little carb - a half oz of nuts and half a banana or some grapes worked well. These are easy to digest and was just enough to give me some energy without upsetting my stomach. I found that this made a BIG difference in my performance. When I wasn't eating before a WO I would hit a wall after about 30 min and just couldn't go on. Once I started have a little snack before exercising I could go much harder and longer. Report
I can't eat before a workout. It may be out of habit from being in the army where we would do PT first in the morning and then eat breakfast. But also if I'm going to do a high intense workout like Plyometrics or heavy cardio I don't want to lose my breakfast cause I didn't have time to digest it. I prefer eating after a workout. Report
This varies for me. I always make sure I eat breakfast in the morning and I try to eat something prior to a workout. I find that my blood sugar does drop in the evening so I need that food to get my blood sugar up and keep it stable. However, I've noticed that I can't eat prior to a run. If I run in the morning, I have to eat breakfast after the run. If I eat before, I end up with cramps. Oddly enough, this doesn't happen if I do some other workout.

I find having breakfast makes my workouts more productive. but, that's just me.
I too get up and excerise first then eat. I do do better after I have eaten though. Report
This information was good to know. I had heard that your were supposed to eat a protein and carb before and after you work out and when I did morning exercise I would do that. I really appreciate the knowledge of the hours it takes for this to get in my system. I don't want to hinder my weight loss either so I would have to get up early and eat breakfast then go workout in a few hours. I have a schedule where I can do this but others do not. I love morning exercise! Report
I eat then walk or ride my stationary bike about 30 minutes later. Report
I like to eat something before i exercise, usually a small bowl of cereal, then i'll have a serving of fruit 20 to 30 minutes after my workout. Report
I'm glad you wrote this blog because after reading last week's "donut or nothing" article, I knew I had to re-think my working out before eating routine. Before I (recently) retired, I would wake up at 5:15am and be out to the door to the gym or a bike ride 15-30 minutes later. No eating beforehand, even though I would be burning hundreds of calories. It seemed to work fine for me. In fact I have trouble eating something and doing physical exercise, with the exception of bicycling when I can eat whatever and immediately hop on my bike.

Now I will be making a more conscious effort to eat before exercising, and I have that luxury because I don't have to be out the door immediately. But not everyone has the luxury, so this is an interesting dilemma. Report
I like to have a light snack before a workout, and then have my main meal (lunch for breakfast...I work nights and I don't wake up until around lunchtime) after my workout. Smoothies and juice work well. Solid foods make my stomach cramp if I workout, and an empty stomach makes me feel lightheaded. Liquid snacks seem to agree with my workouts, though. Report
I am with the group that likes to have breakfast. Unfortunately, I can not eat a lot before working out as I tend to get sick. What I found I could handle and still work out was a drink that I found in a Prevention magazine years ago. It was made with orange juice, banana, and yogurt. This allows me to work out with something in the stomach but not so much that I get sick. Report
I make it a point to eat breakfast any rehydrate myself before exercising. I give my breakfast a chance to settle by checking my e-mail and checking in to Spark People after eating, then begin my exercise. Report
I find that I cannot exercise first thing in the morning on an empty stomach without experiencing nausea so I always have a small breakfast before leaving for the gym. My husband finds the opposite is true for him and exercises on an empty stomach so he doesn't experience nausea. Everyone is unique! Report
I get nauseus if I eat breakfast within half an hour of waking up, and I also get nauseus if I exercise within an hour of eating breakfast. So to eat breakfast AND exercise before work, I'd have to get 4 hours of sleep, which also keeps me from working out at my best! :) It's all about figuring out what trade-off works best... Report
I exercise at 6am. If I am doing strength training, I do not eat; but if I am doing cardio, I have to eat something little before exercising Report
I'm not a morning person so eatting breakfast isnt my thing first thing in the Am. so because I have to stretch to even get out of bed I just use the stretching as a starting off point to my work out. I tend to feel better and have a betterappitite and want to eat better. Oatmeal whole wheet toast peanut butter and some fruit. And of course my coffee ( havent been ableto cut down on that yet.) But working on it. Report
I like to exercise, right after breakfast. I like to have something in my stomach before I work out. If I do it before food, I find I feel nauseaus. I like to ride my bike in the afternoon, and if I do yoga, in the evening. Report
I had been exercising - basically walking either outside during summer and weekends and with Leslie Sansone during the school year before breakfast - had a routine that included my thyroid medicine which says I should take that an hour before eating - so it worked out. This summer I tried switching it and eating my oatmeal and Fage before exercising - but it's too soon for the synthroid - but recent blood tests show that it hasn't effected my levels. So as the school year begins I'm going to try to continue breakfast first, but will switch if I just can't time it right - or if I'm too hungry before my snack time. Report
I'd love to be able to work out before breakfast like I use to be able to do - but its not something I can do any longer. If I don't get food into my tummy and make sure my glucose levels are fair stable going out for a walk or more active activity could land me in the ER mighty fast do to way to low glucose levels.

But one thing is for sure I always have found that I work out better in the evening and have way more energy and then some if I choose to work out in the evening (9pm or so) it doesn't effect my ability to sleep either, if anything it can help if I've not been sleeping to well to start with. Report
I like to roll out of bed and exercise first thing. I've never been hungry when I wake up so it fits my schedule much better to exercise first and eat later. Report
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