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Exercise And Sleep: Get Moving Every Day To Get Better Rest

Written by Dr. Pulyk Nataliya Omelanivna on Fri, 11 November 2022

Key Highlights

  • Exercise and sleep have a close connection, as a number of studies have proved.
  • Fitness activities lead to better heart health and lower stress levels, which is good for sleep.
  • The recommended daily exercise duration is 30 minutes a day, but even a 10-minute power walk counts as exercise.
  • You shouldn't exercise too close to bedtime because the adrenaline rush from the workout might interrupt sleep.
  • Early morning, late afternoon, or early evening are the most ideal times to exercise for good sleep.
  • An after-dinner relaxed walk can help digestion and contribute to better sleep.
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When you think of the phrase 'a good night's sleep', you're immediately filled with a sense of wellbeing. That's because a good night's sleep is such an absolute necessity for good health, and your brain knows it and it welcomes the thought. 

So, how to translate this happy thought into reality? One of the key things to do is to get active, because exercise and sleep are connected

Exercise and sleep: understanding the connection

Exercise and SleepTo understand how exercise helps sleep, just look at people whose work involves a lot of activity during the day, and maybe even hard labor. Most of them sleep soundly — unless they're highly stressed about something — because their body has been in motion all day, and is ready for rest at night.

The word 'exercise' here encompasses a variety of physical activities, such as walking or cycling to work (if possible), instead of driving. It's more accurate to say that fitness activities and sleep are connected, because the exercise doesn't have to be in the gym, but it does have to be regular.

Physical activities improve your heart health, result in the release of the "feel-good" chemicals called endorphins, and are believed to bring down stress levels, all of which are good for sleep.

According to the official recommendations of sports physicians, people should do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, or at least 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week. 

There's ample evidence to suggest that there's a definite correlation between exercise and sleep. The US-based National Sleep Foundation's 2013 Sleep Poll shows that those who never exercise wake up more often during the night and have difficulty falling asleep.

On one hand, while not exercising leads to poor sleep, poor sleep also makes people less inclined to exercise — that's a vicious cycle.

On the other hand, exercising not only aids sleep, but good sleep also helps people stay motivated and energized for continued exercise — that's a virtuous cycle.

A 2010 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine says that regular aerobic exercise dramatically improves the quality of sleep, mood and vitality. Around middle age, sleep begins to change dramatically. We need to find behavioral ways to improve sleep at this life stage. Aerobic exercise is a simple strategy to help people sleep better and feel more vigorous. It also means that you don't have to take pills to sleep, which might otherwise interfere with the other medicines that you take. 

How exercise improves sleep

How exercise improves sleepExercise improves sleep for a number of reasons: 

  • It tires out the muscles, which means they're now set for a period of rest.
  • It breaks down muscle tissue, and the body wants to induce sleep for growth and restoration so as to build muscle back up again.
  • It regulates hormone levels in your body.
  • It boosts your body's circulation, thereby helping you to relax.
  • It lowers stress, removing one of the biggest reasons for sleeplessness.
  • It helps you lose weight, thereby preventing obesity and breathing problems like sleep apnea. This condition causes a momentary cessation in breathing during sleep, and puts a strain on your heart. Also, as soon as your brain realizes that it's being starved of oxygen, it wakes you up so that your breathing kicks in again.

Exercise acts as stress relief

Getting fitter helps sleep, because when you exercise, it releases pent-up physical and mental energy. Doing this every day is an important form of stress relief that aids sleep.

If you suffer from stress, and are restless when you lie in bed, it's possible that adrenaline has built up in your muscles and you need to set it free. In this case, start with just a 10-minute burst of physical activity every day, like a 10-minute power walk, to relieve muscle tension. Then build it up from there to get your 30 minutes of daily exercise.

  • Research shows that people who exercise regularly sleep longer at night and enjoy deeper, restorative sleep. 
  • Their daytime energy levels and focus are better. 
  • Most importantly, regular exercise or a brisk walk and a little weight training can reduce the incidence of sleep apnea by 25%.

Best time for exercise

While better fitness helps good sleep, you need to engage in your fitness activities at the right time of the 24-hour cycle, so that you can get a sound 7-8 hours of sleep. 

'A good night's sleep' may actually have to be during the daytime, if you're working night shifts. The important thing is to get the right quality and quantity of sleep for enough energy during your waking hours.

  • Best time for exerciseDon't exercise too close to your sleeping time, since the adrenaline rush that comes with the exercise will keep you awake. Adrenaline allows you to exert yourself more; it stimulates the heart and makes it pump faster so that your muscles can get oxygen at a faster rate. It also makes you extremely active, which is obviously not conducive to quality sleep.
  • Assuming you work during the day and sleep at night, keep a gap of 4-5 hours between exercise time and sleep time. A report in the journal Experimental Physiology has suggested that 30 minutes of high-intensity exercise performed in the early evening does not affect subsequent sleep negatively; what's more, it may also reduce feelings of hunger.
  • The best time to exercise is early in the morning. You're going to start your day with your metabolism speeded up, and you'll be burning more calories all day long.

A study done by Appalachian State University, United States, has found evidence that participants have lower blood pressure throughout the day when they complete their workout at 7 am, instead of 7 pm. 

Lower blood pressure means lower risk of heart attacks, heart disease and stroke. The study has also found that morning exercise contributes to about a 25 per cent dip in blood pressure at night, resulting in more beneficial sleep cycles than exercising at a later time of day.

  • If you can't exercise first thing in the morning, try to exercise any time before 6pm. Experts believe that protein synthesis peaks between 2 pm and 6 pm, increasing performance and power level at that time. So, you could have more intense workouts like weight training or strenuous cardio, with a decreased risk of injury. 
  • Also because, in an afternoon workout, the body has been fueled with meals and hydration throughout the day, it can provide more energy and endurance to push through a workout than what a pre-breakfast workout could.
  • After 6 pm, a healthy body starts winding its various functions down, taking the brain on the long journey to sleep. If you exercise at this time, your body's gradual dial-down process will be interrupted.
  • However, moderate exercise in the evening, such as a relaxed walk after dinner, should not be a problem for most people. Indeed, an after-dinner walk helps digestion and, therefore, should improve sleep.

Despite the science behind all of these advantages, the most significant factor to keep in mind is your personal preference. Some people find that the time of day they exercise doesn't make a difference. 

Whether it's early in the morning or close to bedtime, they see a benefit to their sleep. Try exercising at different times of the day and find what works best for you. What matters is that you get some movement into your day without fail.

How much to exercise

When you exercise and also get enough rest, your body transforms from your workout while you're asleep. This is when your body releases all of the beneficial hormones and undertakes repair programs to build you up better than before. 

By working out, you expose yourself to a healthy stressor, but you get the reward only if you rest properly and recover.

  • A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that older adults who suffered from insomnia were able to sleep 45-60 minutes longer per night by exercising for 30 minutes at least 3-4 afternoons a week. It took regular exercise over 3-4 months to significantly and consistently give them longer nights of sleep.
  • The American Academy of Sleep Research says that even small amounts of routine physical activity may improve your sleep and overall wellbeing. A survey of more than 155,000 adults in the United States asked participants if they had exercised at all in the past month, such as by running, golfing, gardening or walking. Those who had exercised were one-third less likely to report sleep problems and half as likely to report daytime tiredness. So, getting some exercise is almost always better than getting no exercise at all.

Good habits to aid sleep 

Good habits to aid sleepRemember, eight hours in bed doesn't mean you get eight hours of sleep. If you find yourself tossing and turning instead of falling asleep, try these tips and techniques from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), United States, that will help your body and mind to become more sleep-friendly:

  • Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends.
  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature.
  • Remove electronic devices, such as TV, computers, and smartphones, from the bedroom.
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime.
  • Get some exercise. Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night.

Conclusion

Simple interventions and a more conscious approach to your daily habits can go a long way in alleviating sleep problems. Exercise has mental and physical benefits that help you sleep better, and though 30 minutes of exercise a day is ideal, lack of time can't be a reason to not exercise. 

Something is better than nothing, so find at least 10 minutes a day for better fitness and better sleep, and build it up from there.

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Dr. Pulyk Nataliya Omelanivna

Dr. Pulyk Nataliya Omelanivna is an Internal Medical Expert who is based out of Ukraine. With a special interest in internal medicine Dr Pulyk graduated from the Ternopil National Medical Academy in Ukraine, in the year 2001. Between the years 2002-2009, Dr Pulyk worked as an emergency physician. Her years of work as an emergency physician gave her immense exposure to a range of patients and an opportunity to learn on the job, and gather extensive experience.

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