The Dawn Patrol

Before the world wakes, morning warriors are working out, all around the state.

(Photograph by Adam Ewing)

In the pre-dawn hours across Virginia, alarm clocks are sounding and—instead of hitting snooze—a legion of dedicated early morning exercisers are slipping into swimsuits, rowing gear, or sneakers before the demands of the day take hold.

They seize the dawn for practical reasons, so that jobs, families, and late-day fatigue don’t interfere with their sweat habits. James Farmer, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in Roanoke, joins a master’s swimming group for laps at 5:00 a.m., three times a week, a routine he has maintained for five years.

“Nobody misses me at that point in the day—I can control when I get up, but I can’t always control when I’m done with work,” explains Dr. Farmer, who joins his busy family with four children when he takes off his white coat in the evening. “Even when I had the best intentions of exercising later, things would interfere and derail that plan.”

As it turns out, science supports the crack-of-dawn workout. When compared to other hours of the day, morning exercise has proven benefits including increased fat loss, blood sugar control, and appetite regulation. There are mental health benefits, as well. A 2019 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that morning exercise improves visual learning, attention, and decision-making throughout the day.

Starting a new habit isn’t easy, but behavioral science has given us proven ways to make an exercise routine stick, like working out with a partner or group, setting motivating goals, and starting small. If you’ve ever wanted to give morning exercise a go, here’s how people around Virginia make it happen.


PARTNER WORKOUTS: AN ACCOUNTABILITY BUDDY

(Photograph by Adam Ewing)

Katrin Sydlik and Jamie Blinn are rowing partners who regularly push a double boat into the Chickahominy River in Williamsburg at 6:00 a.m. during the summer—and train together on rowing machines during the chilly months. The German-born Sydlik, a natural early riser who has been sculling since she was nine years old, helps motivate Blinn to get moving early.

“I have five kids and I’m a teacher, so I need to get my workout in and early is the best time to do it,” says Blinn, who is new to the sport, but a quick study under the experienced eye of Sydlik. Blinn is not a morning person, she says, but is urged out of bed by the thought of her boat mate, who’s counting on her to show up. Though Sydlik isn’t bothered by the early hour, a partner keeps her accountable, too. “Neither of us would do it alone,” Sydlik adds.

What keeps the duo coming back is the peace they find on the water. The morning is ideal, as the wind often has not yet stirred, and just a few fishing boats share the calm waters. “If we time it right, the sunrise adds to the natural beauty,” says Blinn, who loves seeing a familiar heron on the dock each morning when she arrives.

When Sydlik heads back to her teaching job in Atlanta each fall, the pair motivate each other from separate cities. Each has an indoor rowing machine, and they’ll wake before 6:00 a.m. and send each other screenshots of their sweat sessions, ensuring they’re both conditioned for when they meet up in person and take to the water again.

Both women are part of the Williamsburg Boat Club, which caters to new and experienced rowers through learn-to-row classes and available competitive avenues. “It’s a real community atmosphere,” says Blinn.

Blinn and Sydlik have tapped into a powerful tool to keep themselves on track, as researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland concluded. An exercise companion increased the amount of exercise people did, and yielded further gains when their workout buddy was emotionally supportive (think of the pair’s screenshots of workouts and “thumbs up” emojis).


GOAL SETTING AND GROUP EXERCISE

Maybe you can’t find the perfect partner to team up with you, but you can find group support in gyms and classes, like Orangetheory Fitness, which operates more than 30 studios throughout Virginia.

(Photograph courtesy of Orangetheory Fitness)

Ella Burkhart, manager of the Fairfax Circle Orangetheory, said the earliest classes, a 60-minute combination of cardio and weight training, start at 5:00 a.m., and a dedicated core group attends regularly. “The community that we’ve built here and the friendships that people have keep them coming back, and the encouragement they show each other—maybe congratulating someone on completing a 10th class or a 100th class—I think it matters,” says Burkhart.

If a client goes missing for more than a week, a trainer from the studio calls them to check-in, judgment-free, and offers to schedule their next class. “I’d say 90 percent of the time that gentle nudge works,” Burkhart notes. If you think you’ll slink away after a few weeks, a gym with an accountability plan is a good idea.

(Photograph courtesy of Valley Health Wellness)

At Valley Health Wellness and Fitness in Winchester, fitness manager Josh Shade sees the same faces in the early morning for exercise classes, which start at 5:30 a.m., and range from water aerobics to cycling and body pump. But this unique gym—which is attached to a hospital campus—also offers goal-setting for those who have been referred by a physician and may be new to exercise. MyFitRx, which Shade oversees, is an eight-week program designed to kickstart new habits and improve fitness metrics.

“We evaluate weight, body composition, cardio endurance, muscle strength, and flexibility at the start, and then do a reassessment at the end of the program, which helps people battling diabetes or recovering from an injury, or getting stronger to undergo a cardiac or orthopedic procedure,” says Shade, who has been at the facility more than a decade.

The hospital’s own research has shown that the program improves surgical outcomes, like recovery time, and each participant has the option to roll into a full gym membership at the program’s completion—the hope is that tangible progress cements new fitness desires and habits.

“We’re building that routine and consistency with exercise, and while certainly people can be disciplined to come in at other times of day, I find that morning exercisers are the ones who consistently stick with it,” notes Shade. “I include myself in that. When I knock it out early in the day, I feel better, and I know I won’t find an excuse later not to do it.”


LITTLE BY LITTLE, BUILD A NEW HABIT

“I used to practice in the evenings up until a couple of years ago,” says Ellington. “As I got older and had more responsibilities in life, I couldn’t make a 6:00 p.m. yoga class. Carving out the time in the morning is what makes or breaks my week, to be honest.”

Ellington says the key to getting a morning practice cemented is to start where you are, do what you can, and have grace for yourself. “Some of the best advice I got was rather than making a huge change, start smaller,” Ellington says. “If you normally get up at 7:00 a.m., scale back to 6:30 a.m., and get in 20 minutes. Do that for two weeks, and then go another 15 minutes.”

This relieves the pressure of making a big change, like promising yourself an hour workout at 5:00 a.m. when you’ve never rolled out of bed before 6:30 a.m. “The consistency is more important than the length of time,” she notes.

In addition to seeing private clients, Ellington produces studio-quality yoga videos available via subscription, so yogis can develop a home practice for a fraction of the cost of private training, perfect for starting a morning habit at home.

As for giving oneself grace, research shows a new habit takes approximately 66 days for most people to cement. So mark the calendar, and check in with yourself in a little over two months to see how far you’ve come to reach your sunrise goals. (TheYogaShedRVA.com)


This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue.

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