It’s no secret that exercise comes with a multitude of good-for-you benefits. Regular physical activity can do everything from elevate your energy and mood to cut your risk for serious health problems like stroke, type 2 diabetes, many types of cancer, and more. But did you know a solid workout schedule can also improve your sleep? Research has shown that exercise promotes increased sleep efficiency and duration, regardless of the type of activity or the intensity.
Working out right before bed, however, may not always be schedule you want to follow for better sleep. “Although it changes from individual to individual, exercising may cause a burst of endorphins and energy which may make it difficult to fall asleep,” says Brittany Bowman, a fitness trainer at Dogpound, a gym in Los Angeles.
This doesn’t mean you should completely dismiss working out in favor of catching those Zzz’s, though. Recent research also shows that the type of workout matters, too. A 2019 systematic review found that moderate-intensity workouts an hour before bedtime can be effective for better sleep. Exercise also needs to be consistent and regular for sleep benefits to really kick in. This could mean breaking up a workout into 15-minute intervals throughout the week, rather than 30.
However, there are still some workouts that are better when scheduled further away from your bedtime. To get the lowdown on exercising for better sleep, we spoke to experts for their advice on types of exercise, their assorted wellness benefits, and when to do them without disturbing your rest. Thanks to their tips, you can catch your Zzz’s and keep up with the cardio, too.
Steady state cardio or aerobics — for reducing daytime sleepiness
Best time: Complete 1-2 hours before bedtime.
It may seem counterintuitive, since running, cycling, and dancing all rev up your heart rate, but cardio (aka aerobic, which means “with oxygen”) exercise is crucial for good sleep. Research has shown that regular cardio sessions can improve the quality of your sleep and reduce excessive daytime sleepiness if you have insomnia. Studies have also shown that moderate-intensity cardio workouts can decrease the severity of sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea.
“Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase the amount of slow wave sleep, meaning deep sleep,” says Bowman. But this doesn’t mean scheduling it right next to bedtime. Bowman recommends finishing any cardio or aerobic routine at least 1 to 2 hours before you go to bed.
The type of activity is up to you; just remember to balance the intensity with the timing of the day. For example, if you’re only able to exercise later in the evening, take a brisk stroll instead of a high-intensity run.
Pro-tip: Like going fast? Squeeze cardio in during the day.
Experts say getting at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise during the day can make a difference that very same night. This can include brisk walking, running, jogging, swimming, cycling, dancing, or any other activity that elevates your heart rate.
Resistance training — for reducing depression and anxiety
Best time: Morning through early evening.
Also known as strength training or weight training, this type of exercise relies on the use of resistance to cause muscles to contract and build strength. Resistance training is generally considered “anaerobic,” meaning it involves short, fast, high-intensity exercises that break down glucose in the muscles for energy. It can provide unique benefits, particularly when it comes to sleep.
“Resistance training can improve sleep because it releases a hormone called adenosine, which can make you feel sleepy,” Bowman says. “Strength training can also decrease feelings of depression and anxiety, which may lead to better sleep.”
Pro-tip: Keep it consistent with 2 to 3 sessions per week.
There are many kinds of resistance-training workouts. Some options include using free weights, medicine balls, weight machines, resistance bands, and even your own body weight (think push-ups). The amount of resistance training you do is up to you, but experts say you can see significant strength improvement with just two or three 20- or 30-minute strength-training sessions per week.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) — for improving daily mood
Best time: Morning.
HIIT has become one of the most popular forms of fitness over the last few years, and with good reason: It’s been shown to improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness, blood pressure, cardiovascular health, insulin sensitivity, cholesterol profiles, and more.
There’s no strict protocol for HIIT, but the basic concept is this: You work super intensely for a period of time, then you rest, then you do it again. The intense work periods can be anywhere from 5 seconds to 8 minutes long, and you should be performing your moves at 80% to 95% of your estimated maximal heart rate (i.e. the maximum number of times your heart beats in a minute without overexerting yourself). The recovery periods can be just as long, and should get your heart rate down to about 40% to 50% of your estimated maximum heart rate.
The workout moves themselves can vary: Some people do HIIT intervals while running, some use the method in cycling, and some do body weight circuits that include moves like mountain climbers, jump squats, burpees, and more. HIIT workouts typically last anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes, with alternating periods of work and rest.
“High-intensity interval training has proven to be one of the most effective workouts for rapid physiological changes, improvements in athletic performance, and an overall better mood,” says Stef Corgel, a certified strength and conditioning coach and instructor at Los Angeles-based Barry’s Bootcamp. “It is, however, easy to overdo it and cause the body’s cortisol levels to spike, resulting in fatigue, crankiness, injury, and poor sleep.”
To reap the benefits of HIIT without hindering your sleep, Corgel offers the following pro-tips:
- Start slow and steady. “The higher the intensity, generally the shorter the workout should be,” Corgel says. “Start with two to three 30-minute HIIT sessions per week, incorporating resistance training, and build frequency from there if your body is adapting well to this type of training.”
- Train in the morning. “To each their own, but most adults get a great deal of energy when completing a HIIT workout in the morning,” Corgel says. “An intense workout in the late afternoon or evening is still extremely beneficial, but makes the wind-down more challenging.”
- Do total-body training. “We all have those muscle groups we love to work on (and those we do not!),” says Corgel. “Try to maintain a well-balanced workout regimen so that when it comes time to lay your head down on the pillow, you are not kept awake by extreme muscle soreness in any one area.”
- Recover appropriately. Corgel says the right nutrients make a big difference in muscle repair and optimal sleep. She’s a fan of drinking tart cherry juice after workouts, which has been linked to increasing muscle recovery, decreasing muscle soreness, and a better night’s rest.
Yoga — for better sleep and relaxation
Best time: Shortly before bedtime.
There are as many different forms of yoga as there are poses. Vinyasa (flow) and hot yoga probably aren’t appropriate choices before bed (although their heart-pumping properties may make them good cardio options earlier in the day). But hatha, which focuses on alignment, and nidra, which focuses on breathing and restorative poses, may be good bedtime companions.
“Yoga can be a great form of exercise to not only bring your body into a state of relaxation but most importantly your mind,” Bowman says. “Some poses that may get you in a more relaxed state and are good to do before bed are child’s pose, yoga nidra, and legs-up-the-wall.”
Yoga instructor, author, and Haus of Phoenix founder Kathryn Budig wholeheartedly agrees, adding that legs-up-the-wall (aka Viparita Karani, which means “inverted” and “in action” in Sanskrit) is “especially refreshing for stress, general fatigue, [and] can even aid with insomnia.”
Budig says legs-up-the-wall is a particularly potent pose to practice when winding down. “It’s wonderful at the end of a yoga practice or before bed to aid in full relaxation, but also great anytime you want to relieve tired legs or a tired mind,” she says. “I would spend a minimum of one minute here, up to five to eight. It wouldn't hurt to stay longer, but your legs might go numb!”
Budig offers a pro tip for extra relaxation: “Tie a yoga strap around your legs so they can fully relax, and try placing a bolster or blanket under your hips, flush against the wall,” she says. “An eye pillow or something to cover your eyes is a massive help.”
If you need a more thorough demo or want some more yoga inspiration for optimal sleep, this 15-minute bed yoga routine can help you get to sleep. Or check out the yoga-for-sleep class Budig designed; it's available on Haus of Phoenix.
Breathwork — for inducing sleep at the right time
Best time: After getting into bed.
Breathwork is an integral part of yoga, but it’s also a fantastic standalone practice that activates your focus and shifts intention towards a calmer state of being. Research has shown that slow, deep breathing can help reduce stress and improve sleep quality.
“Breathwork can be amazing for sleep purposes because it lets you connect with your breath and calm your mind,” Bowman says. “There is nothing worse than trying to fall asleep and your mind is racing. If you can’t fall asleep, try inhaling through your nose for a count of five and exhaling for a count of five. Focus on your breath and continue until you feel relaxed and tired.”
Of the various breathing exercises you can try, the most popular are the box breathing technique and the 4-7-8 breathing method. You can also pair these breathing exercises with progressive muscle relaxation to create an anti-stress combo that’ll help you ease better into a good night’s sleep.
No matter which time of day or style of exercise works best for you, finding something that works, and building it into your routine can help you achieve the clarity and consistency to sleep better each night.