At first the answer seems fairly obvious.
I mean, you’re doing something that expends energy, so you should naturally feel tired afterwards, and therefore this should help you sleep.
If only it was that simple.
Think about it for a moment. If this was the case, wouldn’t we all be falling asleep straight after a morning workout?
Actually, come to think of it, that has happened to me on more than one occasion, but I shall explain why in a moment.
The benefits of exercise, in terms of our physical and mental well-being, are well documented.
However, I want to look a little further in-depth at how exercise may affect our sleeping patterns.
1. Exercise Will Improve The Quality Of Your Sleep
Sleeping is not just about how many hours we spend under the covers. In reality, how well we’re actually sleeping matters far more.
I’m sure that you’re aware that the optimum number of hours sleep per night is between 7-9 hours.
With that being said, I have met many people who appear to function perfectly normally with around 5-6 hours a night (although I wouldn’t recommend it – it may eventually catch up with you), whereas others seem to be a zombie-like mess unless they’re getting 10 hours minimum of shut-eye a night.
I guess we’re all individuals and one size doesn’t fit all.
Nevertheless, our aim should be the 7-9 hour mark.
For many years I struggled with the concept of why I was always so tired, even though I had actually spent around 8 hours in bed.
As it turns out, I was probably only getting around about 5 hours of sleep on a nightly basis.
I recall staring at the clock at half-past-midnight, even though I had got into bed at 10am, and then I’d find myself staring at the clock again for a good 30-40 minutes before my 6am alarm call.
One thing we are aware of now is that exercise will contribute to a more sound and restful sleep.
You will also spend more time in deep sleep, as someone who exercises regularly.
Deep sleep happens to be the most physically restorative stage of sleep, and is when the muscles will repair and rejuvenate themselves. It is also during the deep sleep stage that you will boost immune function, which not only helps to control stress and anxiety, it also supports heart health.
2. Exercise Helps to Reduce Stress and Anxiety
From a personal perspective, stress and anxiety were absolute killers for me in terms of getting a decent night’s sleep.
And I guarantee I’m not the only one.
I’d spend many a night tossing and turning and constantly overthinking things that didn’t really matter all that much when I was trying to catch 40-winks.
Stress is actually known to be one of the most common causes of sleep problems, and will typically lead to trouble falling asleep, as well causing you to sleep restlessly throughout the night.
Exercise is frequently recommended for those who suffer with stress, anxiety and even depression.
When you exercise, the body will release endorphins, one of many neurotransmitters that give you a feeling of a “high”.
Exercise also releases dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
These chemicals are extremely important when it comes to regulating our mood.
So, in essence the “feel-good” factor can help to combat stress and anxiety, which in turn makes it easier to get a good night’s sleep.
3. It Can Boost The Duration Of Your Sleep
Okay, I am kind of going back on myself here, so it’s best that I explain what I mean.
Exercising and being physically active in general will require you to expend energy, which can obviously make you tired.
However, as long as you’re exercising the right amount (for your own fitness level) then you should feel energized throughout the day, but ready to rest and sleep by the time night comes around.
Let me give you an example that doesn’t involve what would be termed “traditional” exercise.
Say you’ve been working in the garden all day (expending energy), which releases a number of feel-good hormones due to the physical activity and also a sense of achievement (and possibly pride).
Have you ever noticed that by the end of the day you start to feel really tired and you just can’t wait to get into bed, and you know you’re going to get a great night’s sleep?
As long as you’re exercising within your own limits, you’ll feel the same. Alert and refreshed throughout the day, but ready for your bed when the time comes.
More often than not, it will take less time to actually fall asleep. We now know that the quality of your sleep will be improved through regular exercise, but you are also likely to sleep for longer than if you hadn’t exercised.
This is especially true if exercise is performed on a consistent basis.
4. Beware, Exercise Can Actually Harm Your Sleep
Oh yes, I’m afraid so.
This is something that I found out to my detriment.
Firstly, I should say that I have been exercising for many, many years. In fact, ever since I was a child, and throughout my adult life.
So, as time went on I increased the amount I exercised and varied my workouts a fair amount too.
However, I typically have quite an obsessive personality, and this is true when it came to exercise.
People often talk about “overtraining”, but I have also read articles where it has been stated that it is extremely difficult for the average person to overtrain.
Think about it for a moment – professional athletes tend to train numerous times a day and can easily wrack up 6 or 7 hours of exercise a day. But, of course they are not your “average” person.
I managed to get to a stage where I was working out in the gym for about 2 hours every morning, typically 6 or 7 days a week, and quite often I’d throw in a shorter evening workout outdoors if I felt like it (which was actually quite often – see I told you, obsessive).
However, whereas I may be fitter than your average Joe, I’m certainly no professional athlete, plus I wasn’t 100% on point with my nutrition.
I often felt tired and lethargic during the day, and would nap regularly. I also found that by the time I went to bed I would typically feel wide awake, and unable to sleep.
So, my exercise regime was actually hindering both the quality and duration of my sleep.
It’s probably also important to note that overtraining can lead to the release of cortisol, or as I like to call it, the stress hormone.
Unbeknownst to me, the amount of exercise I was doing (and a bad diet didn’t help either) was actually causing me stress and anxiety, led to me sleeping less, and the quality of my sleep suffered greatly too.
5. What Is The Right Amount of Exercise?
I must admit the answers I come across online annoy me somewhat.
There appears to be a standard answer on most websites that states that 150 minutes a week, or 30 minutes per day for 5 days is the right amount.
Then these figures are “backed up” by quoting health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, etc.
I am not disputing these “facts”, but the way I see it, exercise is a very individual thing.
If you have never exercised before and I told you to run for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, do you think you’d manage it?
I would say Not.
The opposite can be said for someone who exercises on a very regular basis. I know that for me I have occasionally completed a 30-minute workout and nothing more in a day (I have calmed down a lot on the time and intensity of exercise I do ever since I realized the effect it was having on me and my physical and mental wellbeing), but this usually feels like an easy day or even a day off to me.
So, in reality, only you will know for sure what the right amount of exercise is for YOU.
Thirty minutes walking a day may be a good starting point for most people who have never really exercised before, but I would also say there are those who would struggle with this too.
You could then even argue about what the best form of exercise is – is it resistance training? Is it Cardio? Should I be lifting heavy weights for low reps or light weights for high reps? Is running, cycling, rowing, or walking the best form of cardio? (This goes beyond the scope of this article, but I’m sure I will discuss the merits of each form of exercise in relation to sleep in the future).
For me, being active is the main thing, and as long as you’re doing something to release those happy hormones, then you’re onto a winner.
I’ve mentioned gardening above. Housework may also feel like exercise (have you ever tried vacuuming a set of narrow stairs?) to some people, whereas running for 5km could feel like an easy day for others.
As long as you’re getting that heart rate slightly elevated at some point during the day, you are being physically active. So, good on you.
6. When Should You Be Exercising?
Once again, this is an individual thing.
The only real advice I can offer is that you should not be exercising (especially with high-intensity) too close to your bedtime.
I would say that at the latest, 3 hours before bed is the ideal cut-off point, but once again there is differing advice on this. I can only really tell you from my own experiences (I used to work out in the evening after work about 2 hours before bed).
Don’t forget that the release of hormones will typically put you on a high, and even though it can be a great stress reliever, you may find it difficult to fall asleep straight away.
I prefer to exercise first thing in the morning, as I feel it sets me up for the day.
I (now) feel energized and ready to tackle whatever the day throws at me, and I know by the time I am ready to go to bed I will fall asleep fairly quickly.
This has now become a habit for me, and if I don’t do some form of exercise in the morning I typically feel lethargic and not very enthusiastic during the day.
And that’s the point – Habit.
There are people who will swear by exercising in the afternoon, or the early evening, and this helps them sleep well at night.
If they were to exercise at a different time during the day it potentially wouldn’t have the same effect.
So, my advice is to find a happy medium and see what works best for you.
The benefits of exercise and getting a great night’s rest should be obvious now.
You can improve the quality of your sleep, relieve stress and anxiety, and increase the amount of time you sleep.
However, you should also be wary of how much exercise you perform, as overdoing it can have an adverse effect on your sleeping capabilities.
It’s also important that you don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as it may be difficult to calm both the mind and body down as you’re trying to rest.
All-in-all, exercise can definitely help you sleep, but only if done in the right way.