Getting consistent exercise is one of the best things you can do for better sleep.
In fact, research shows that exercise may be just as effective as prescription sleep medications at helping people with chronic insomnia.
“How we rest at night reflects the totality of what we did throughout the day,” explains Dr. Alexandra Sowa, medical director of SoWell Health, a private practice in New York City, and clinical instructor in medicine at NYU Langone Health.
However, in the race for better, more restorative sleep, no two exercise strategies have the exact same effects. Below, experts explain the connection between movement and rest as well as the most effective strategies for exercising yourself to sleep.
How Does Exercise Help You Sleep?
Exercise can help you sleep in more ways than one.
First, adenosine — the exact same molecule that propels the human drive to sleep — is also what accumulates in the body as a natural byproduct of exercise, says Dr. Sowa. It results from the breakdown of energy-containing compounds and, by acting on specialized receptors in the brain, creates sleepiness and encourages sleep for recovery.
Second, physical activity also helps to regulate the body’s circadian rhythms and levels of sleep-regulating hormones and neurochemicals such as melatonin, cortisol, and endorphins.
Third, exercise is highly effective in the management of stress and anxiety, both of which are tightly linked to insomnia, explains psychotherapist Sarah Farris, L.C.P.C., founder of Chicago Mind and Body.
What is the Best Exercise for Sleep?
The best exercise routine for sleep is just that, routine.
Dr. Sowa recommends engaging in at least 30 minutes of intentional movement every single day, which is in line with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (or 75 minutes of high-intensity cardio) along with at least two days of total-body strengthening exercises per week.
That might mean performing a structured workout like running or lifting weights or doing something as casual as going for a walk or doing some freestyle yoga stretches in your living room. You can do your activity all at once or break it up throughout the day, she says.
What’s most important is using and moving your body in some way, every day. So choose activities that you can realistically keep up.
Whatever you decide, try to work out around the same time every day, says Dr. W. Christopher Winter, neurologist, sleep-medicine specialist, and author of “The Sleep Solution.” Doing so will help keep your body’s sleep-wake cycle consistent from day to day.
Choose Exercises That Mentally Feel Good
In building the motivation to exercise every day, it’s obviously important to gravitate toward workouts you like. However, focusing on pure enjoyment has another positive impact on sleep: mood and stress regulation.
As Farris explains, even if you like running or cycling, getting caught up in the pressure of personal records or races could easily add to your mental stress and anxiety levels. Recognize if you tend to be overly competitive or hard on yourself, and make sure to include some just-for-fun activities into your weekly rotation.
Also, give yourself extra time to “come down” after mentally tough workouts before trying to go to sleep. These types of workouts tend you “amp you up,” which can make falling asleep difficult.
How Late is Too Late to Exercise?
When it comes to the best time to exercise, the answer varies from person to person as well as with the type and intensity of workouts.
"Most people should not exercise at a hard intensity within an hour of going to bed, but some people may require two or more hours,” says Dr. Sowa. Exercise results in a short-term spike in endorphins, cortisol, and core body temperature that promote wakefulness, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Generally speaking, the more troubled your typical sleep quality and the higher your heart rate gets during your workouts, the earlier in the day you should exercise. Morning exercise is especially helpful when it comes to telling the body, “it’s daytime” and setting your circadian rhythms, says Dr. Winter.
But if you don’t have time earlier in the day, that shouldn't keep you from consistent exercise. “If you can only fit it in late in the evenings or at night, do it then,” he adds, explaining that, over time, your body will adapt to its new schedule.
In fact, the National Sleep Foundation has reversed its long-time warning of late-night exercise. The group now encourages everyone without sleep issues to exercise as late in the day as works for them and their sleep.
What’s more, it’s important to note that low-intensity exercise such as restorative yoga and stretching can be beneficial at relaxing the body at bedtime, Dr. Sowa says. You can even do many poses in bed.
Track Your Exercise and Sleep to Get Results
If you exercise today, you might sleep just a little bit better tonight. But the full benefits take time. For instance, the National Sleep Foundation reports that when people with chronic insomnia begin a regular workout routine, within four weeks, they can expect to fall asleep up to 13 minutes faster and sleep 18 minutes longer.
To keep tabs on your progress and exactly how your workouts affect your sleep, Dr. Sowa recommends tracking both. Note the type, intensity, and timing of your workouts along with that night’s bedtime, how you slept, when you woke up, and how rested you felt the next morning.
Tracking both your exercise and your sleep can help you identify what’s working and what’s not, so you can make tweaks that will move you closer to your goals.
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