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Can exercise improve your sleep? We asked a sleep doctor

Are you looking for a way to get more sleep in the New Year? Are you looking to improve your physical fitness? If you’re one of them, you’ve come to the right place. Hacking your exercise regimen to support better sleep is a great way to hit both of your goals at the same time. Sleep and exercise have a lot in common, and both can have a positive or negative impact on your overall health.

Read on to learn more about how exercise and sleep work together, how exercise affects sleep, important timing factors to consider, and whether exercise actually improves insomnia.

How can exercise improve your sleep?

According to behavioral sleep specialist Carleara Weiss, sleep and exercise have a two-way relationship. “Exercise leads to good sleep quality, while poor sleep quality leads to sedentarism,” she explains. There are a couple of key reasons why:

1. Exercise helps regulate your body clock

Physical activity (or a lack thereof) impacts your circadian rhythms, aka your sleep-wake cycles. They hold sway over important hormones involved with energy, alertness, and sleepiness.

“A consistent exercise routine helps the biological clock determine the time of the day and regulate hormones like cortisol, melatonin, and endorphins,” Dr. Weiss continues. “Ultimately, this [can help] reduce sleep onset latency (how long it takes to fall asleep) and improve overall sleep quality.”

2. Exercise helps with thermoregulation

Exercise increases your heart rate, increases blood flow, and makes you sweat. Not only does it keep your heart healthy, your muscles strong, and your body in good condition, but your workouts also help improve your sleep quality by increasing your body heat. “Exercise increases your core body temperature which will later decrease and help you fall asleep,” says Dr. Weiss.

Your average body temperature is 98.6°F during waking hours, but it drops and changes throughout the night. A decrease in your core body temperature during the night isn’t just normal, it’s also very beneficial to help you fall asleep.

The sleep hormone melatonin plays a critical role in the induction of sleep. According to a 2012 review of sleep in humans, sleep onset occurs only when your core temperature drops and rarely occurs when core temperature increases.

Can too much exercise interfere with sleep?

Exercising regularly has long been known to improve your day-to-day energy levels, sleep quality, and overall well-being. However, exercising too much or at the wrong time can have a negative impact on your sleep quality. “Exercising too much, especially within 1-3 hours before bed, can cause overstimulation and insomnia,” Dr. Weiss says.

Everyone needs good quality sleep, regardless of age. However, athletes and people with intense workout schedules need more than enough rest to help them recover. According to a 2018 review published in the Journal of Physiology, overtraining often causes sleep problems and reduces sleep efficiency (the difference between the amount of time you sleep and the total amount of time you spend in bed).

There is a fine line between too much of something and too little of something when it comes to exercise and sleep. Overworking or oversleeping can be detrimental to your health and wellbeing, so it is important to find the right balance.

For example, according to Dr. Weiss, the recommended amount of aerobic exercise is 150 minutes a week, or about 30 minutes a day. This quota can also be adjusted to include 75 minutes a week for high-intensity exercise, in addition to 2 or more days of total-body strength training.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend 150 minutes a week for moderate-intensity exercise.

Dr. Carleara Weiss is a research assistant professor and behavioral sleep specialist with a PhD in nursing specializing in Behavioral Sleep Medicine and circadian rhythms. She is a member of ACSMO’s Sleep Research Society.

When’s the best time of day to work out?

Key to using your exercise regimen to improve your sleep is doing the right kinds of exercise at the right time of day, as well as knowing when to stop exercising before bed. So…

Morning / early afternoon: Moderate-to-intense exercise

Generally, Dr. Weiss says that if you want to plan your workouts to help you sleep better, it’s best to do them in the morning. According to some studies, our circadian rhythm performance is at its peak between 2 and 6pm. Heavy exercise during this time can have a negative impact on sleep.

Dr. Weiss recommends that you do both aerobic exercise (e.g., running, biking, hiking, etc.) and strength training (using your own body’s resistance and/or weight, such as HIIT classes or through staples such as pushups, squats and weighted equipment).

Sports should also be done in the morning, as they increase endorphins and can help with early melatonin release, which tells your body it’s time to go to bed.

Moreover, if you want to go the extra mile, it could be in your best interest to exercise outdoors shortly after waking up. As the Stanford Lifestyle Medicine Program explains, our sleep-wake cycles are heavily influenced by light exposure. Light is a zeitgeber, meaning it stimulates the body for wakefulness. When paired with exercise, even a short burst of sunlight exposure in the morning can work wonders to promote daytime energy levels and restfulness come nightfall.

Evening: Low-intensity movement

If you enjoy gentle forms of movement – such as strolls around the block after work or dinner, stretching, or gentle yoga – Dr Weiss gives these the green light to enjoy them in the evening.

She especially prizes restorative yoga, which lacks an aerobic component. Instead, it prioritizes calming down the mind and body and helps you tap into the parasympathetic nervous system, aka the ‘rest and digest’ response. “Gentle, restorative yoga is a good practice for the evening, as it promotes muscle relaxation, lowers respiratory rates, and helps with sleep onset,” she explains.

Can exercise help with insomnia?

If you struggle with chronic insomnia, hacking your exercise routine can help remedy your restless nights in several ways.

According to a review published in 2023 in the Journal Cureus, regular physical activity reduces sleep latency (how long it takes you to fall asleep) and improves sleep quality. It also helps manage sleep disorders like insomnia.

A good workout routine can also help you spend more time in deep sleep. This is important because it helps you feel refreshed when you wake up and helps you learn better, among other things.

The Cureus review also found moderate-intensity exercise to be especially helpful for sleep.

“If you’re having trouble sleeping due to insomnia, walking, running, or swimming, or doing yoga,” says Dr. Weiss, “you’re doing yourself a favor.”

You’ll also benefit from scheduling aerobic and / or more intense workouts early in the day.

Exercise also helps reduce anxiety, which is one of the biggest causes of insomnia. If you’re constantly ruminating and worrying about things that you shouldn’t be worrying about, it’s time to get out of your head and into your muscles!

Last but not least, Dr. Weiss underscores the importance of adhering to a calm and relaxing bedtime routine on top of hacking your exercise routine. “Gentle yoga could be incorporated, followed by a warm bath or shower under dim light to favor sleep, she concludes.

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