hot bod

Behold, the Ascendance of the Lunchtime Workout

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

During one recent fall when I was very dramatic all the time, I took a lot of long, fast solo walks along the river instead of going to get lunch on my break. I can’t really believe it now because I love lunch, but we do strange things when we’re feeling jilted and gloomy. While I was being emotive by some water, a loose parade of type-A-looking people, cast in a very different type of movie, were always running past me in sleek joggers. I knew nothing of their lives or their employment — who knows if their lunch hour was meridian, who knows if they felt the same panopticon pressure of being possibly surveilled all the time — but they were really exercising during a presumed meal break. I thought lunchtime workout fiends were outliers, super-scheduled triathletes with fast metabolisms who didn’t really like food anyway. I thought they were rare.

I’ve come to learn that the lunchtime diehard is not the outlier — the lunchtime diehard is the plurality. Last year, noon usurped 5:30 p.m. to become the most popular time to exercise during the workweek, at least according to a recent report from ClassPass (Peloton also saw a 35 percent jump in popularity for lunchtime workouts, the company told me over email; and I learned that SLT chose to schedule its live classes at 12:30 p.m. every day after surveying its clients). The midday class: It’s what the people want. I was flummoxed and I was impressed. I felt the same sort of communitywide betrayal I felt when all of my peers were suddenly wearing bras in fifth grade. Everyone had just been quietly doing this thing? Everyone was just stealth exercising in the middle of the day, while I was reheating leftovers infinitely? Everyone had just been squeezing in a workout?

It’s a cursed practice to squeeze in a workout. It smacks of a life divided into 15-minute increments and devoid of all fun. And squeezed is very much how midday workouts seemed to me. They’re shoved in between stuff with no breathing room. My best friend in Chicago told me she tried taking a run in the middle of the day twice last year; she will never attempt it again. “It was so nice, but I was sweaty and had ugly hair for my subsequent meetings,” she told me. “How do you stop sweating and clean yourself up and workout in one hour?”

In some ways, I get it. For people thudding into their 89th consecutive month of working from home, there’s never been a better time to exercise in the middle of the day. There’s no gym to transport yourself to. You can lay out a mat just inches from where you were working. You didn’t need to pack your running shoes and a change of clothes in a bulky tote. Your own personal shower is probably steps from your desk chair. Rather than rushing out of the traditional 50-minute class, digital classes are whatever length of time you desire.

And a firm midday hustle can break up a day that seems to bleed on. Zach Bergfelt, a Pilates instructor on the online platform, tells me, “I feel like clients work the hardest during this time because it’s also their escape from their own workday.” A break is a temporal pause, but it’s also a physical puncture, and Bergfelt says he suspects exercisers are flocking to midday workouts for the latter reason as well: The workout break provides the sensation of a little, controlled rupture in the schedule. This can release the pressurized atmosphere that builds up when everything’s happening in one hot-house environment.

“Lunchtime training is the ideal because the body is warmed up,” Phaidra Knight tells me over Zoom. Knight is a full-time athlete doing mixed martial arts and founder of athletic apparel company PSK Collective. She’s training all day, throughout the day, but noon workouts, she says, feel like the most important to her. “Midday is the time when I feel most productive. A lunchtime workout would be the last thing I would remove.” As for actual lunch, she says, she’s fueling throughout the workout. “All liquid, but it sustains me.”

As the body is warmer midday, so is the Earth: For exercising outside, “especially when it’s cold, midday is the best, warmest, sunniest time of day,” says my boo, who has been sneaking out for lunchtime bike rides as long as they’ve worked remotely. Their timing isn’t always clean, which I can attest to: “I have definitely been in my bike jersey on internal calls.”

After my long, slow acknowledgment of midday fitness culture’s ascendancy, I finally complied. I am an early morning loyalist, and I was astounded by how much more energy I had in the middle of the day during my usual dilettante bounding. I was way more intense the entire time. The coffee was already in the system! Even solo, I felt like the annoying teacher’s pet in class, just waiting to be praised for her deepest squat.

I am sad to confirm that lunch, like actual food lunch, was piteous. Instead of perching my bowl of rushed miso noodles perpendicular to a magazine that I half read as I text my friends, I put my bowl of noodles perpendicular to my laptop to “do emails,” and my friends remain unbothered. The downgrade doesn’t seem severe, but it feels severe.

So I have returned to my morning routine, where I’m slower and blearier but feel less of the hustle. I do really admire that a midday workout feels more discreet than the morning — which I often let push my day back and back and back. In the middle of the day, as my sculptor friend would say, “the container is strong.”

And like anything that’s a little concentrated, a little rushed, a little sneaky, it really breaks up the day. When I grilled my boo about midday exercising, scurrying between meetings and grabbing a scant banana for a quick meal, I realized the hurrying doesn’t really seem to bother them — maybe exactly the opposite. “It’s great. I kinda feel like I’ve gotten away with something. And anyway, I’m sweaty in meetings all the time, so it doesn’t feel that complicated.” Zoom, a scentless operation, can be forgiving, and at least that’s one thing we’ve got.

Behold, the Ascendance of the Lunchtime Workout