If you feel like a good night’s rest is hard to come by these days, you’re not alone. In a recent study published on Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and obstructive sleep apnea are on the rise — and increased stress from COVID-19 isn’t doing our sleep any favors.
You probably know that tossing and turning each night isn’t good for your health. Poor sleep can increase your risk for a wide range of conditions, from Alzheimer’s disease to diabetes.
Fortunately, there are plenty of small steps you can take to improve your sleep, from upgrading to luxury bedding to getting on a regular sleep schedule. But if there’s one step in particular that you shouldn’t overlook, it’s definitely exercise.
How Can Exercise Improve Sleep?
From improving your brain health to boosting your mood, the health benefits of regular exercise are endless. But do you know that breaking a sweat can also improve your sleep? Here are a few ways exercise can help you sleep better at night.
- It increases the need for sleep. When you put your body through a particularly tough workout, it makes you physically tired. Being physically exhausted before bed makes it easier for you to fall into deep sleep — also known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) slow wave sleep — which your body needs to repair and rejuvenate itself.
- It changes your core body temperature. During strenuous exercise, your muscles convert stored energy into heat energy, which temporarily raises your core body temperature. After 60 to 90 minutes, your core temperature starts to decrease. Because this dip in body temperature is similar to the one you experience shortly before bed, it may facilitate sleepiness.
- It relieves symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you are struggling to fall and stay asleep due to anxiety and depression, regular exercise can be a sleep game-changer. Physical activity helps reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression by triggering the release of endorphins, a group of neurochemicals that make you feel calmer and happier. Exercise also releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that is stimulated whenever you hug someone or snuggle up with a weighted blanket.
- It helps you maintain a healthy weight. Another way exercise can help improve sleep is by decreasing the risk of excessive weight gain. Carrying around a few extra pounds — particularly in the midsection — can increase the likelihood of developing sleep conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia. So by exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet, you can set your body up for sleep success.
- It may help reset your internal body clock. If you’re sleeping for eight hours at a time, but still feel tired after you wake up, your internal body clock could be misaligned. Known as circadian misalignment, this happens when your sleep-wake cycle is off-kilter. So, how can exercise help? Some research suggests that exercise may help “reset” your body’s master clock by influencing the other circadian clocks in your body, known as peripheral clocks.
Does Working Out Before Bed Negatively Impact Sleep?
This question is still hotly debated within the scientific community. For decades, most sleep experts advised against working out in the evening due to its potential to increase heart rate and body temperature before bed.
However, recent studies have challenged the belief that evening exercise can negatively impact sleep quality. In a 2020 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found that healthy young men could engage in moderate aerobic activity 90 minutes before bed without producing any negative effects.
Additionally, a 2019 review published in Sports Medicine analyzed 23 studies on sleep and nighttime workouts and found that exercising at a moderate (but not vigorous) intensity at least one hour before bedtime could improve sleep.
What Are the Best Exercises for Sleep?
Virtually, all forms of exercise will help you sleep, whether it’s running a 5K on the treadmill or sneaking in a quick HIIT workout during your lunch hour. That said, some types of exercise are known to promote a good night’s rest more than others.
Cardio Exercise: Aerobic exercises (aka, cardio exercises) have been scientifically proven to improve sleep quality and combat insomnia. This type of exercise typically includes any activity that gets your heart and breathing rates up, such as brisk walking, running, swimming and cycling. Long and hard aerobic exercises are more likely to give you a “runner’s high,” which is the euphoric feeling you get when your body is flooded with endorphins. For optimal sleep, aim for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week.
Resistance Exercise: Resistance exercise is any exercise where you push, pull or otherwise work against some type of resistance (think bicep curls or squats). Like cardio, resistance exercise offers a wide range of benefits for the mind and body, including stronger muscles, enhanced bone strength, better weight management, stabilized mood and improved flexibility and balance. Resistance exercises also tend to create more adenosine, an important chemical that is known to help regulate sleep.
Yoga: This one is a no-brainer. After all, everyone has heard about the stress-relieving benefits of yoga. In addition to helping lower stress, yoga has been shown to help with back pain relief, arthritis symptoms and other types of chronic pain that might keep you up at night. Research has also shown that yoga may be particularly helpful for women suffering from menopause-related insomnia.
If you’re tossing and turning in your sleep, try adding one of the above exercises to your daily routine to see if it helps your shut-eye. While you’re at it, experiment with working out at different times of the day. Some sleep experts warn that working out too close to bedtime can lead to difficulty sleeping, but everyone is different. Find a routine that works for you and you’ll be dreaming peacefully in no time.