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Mild Exercise And Sleep: Why When You Exercise Matters!

Written by Rama Manikumar on Fri, 11 November 2022

Key Highlights

  • Exercise helps increase the time spent in deep sleep, the most restorative sleep phase.
  • Working out too close to bedtime may disrupt sleep. Examples of exercises you can practice at home are yoga, stretching, walking, and breathing relaxation exercises or meditation.
  • Exercise triggers anti-anxiety responses in the body, helping reduce cortisol levels and blood pressure.
  • It's recommended that you work out no later than the early evening hours to give your muscles and circulatory system time to calm down and prepare for sleep.
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Exercise & sleep share a deep connection, and exercise has long been associated with better sleep. Intuitively and simplistically, one may expect improved physical fitness and moderate amounts of exercise to be beneficial to sleep, while excessive exercise could be counterproductive.

Physical exercise is being increasingly recognized as an important factor that can benefit human cognition and improve the quality of sleep. Studies have also shown that exercise benefits sleep. Self-reported studies have indicated that both moderate and regular physical activity have sleep-promoting benefits whereas exhaustive exercise of high intensity and long duration could disrupt sleep.

Exercise and sleep influence each other through complex, bilateral interactions that involve multiple physiological and psychological pathways. Physical activity is usually considered beneficial in aiding sleep although this link may be subject to multiple moderating factors such as sex, age, fitness level, sleep quality, and the characteristics of the exercise (intensity, duration, time of day, environment). It is therefore vital to understand fundamental physiology to decipher the benefits of exercise on the quantity and quality of sleep in healthy subjects and patients.

Benefits of Exercise for Sleep

Benefits of Exercise for Sleep

  • Improve sleep quality: Exercise can contribute to more sound and restful sleep. Physical activity increases the time spent in deep sleep. Deep sleep helps boost immune function, supports cardiac health, and controls stress and anxiety.
  • Increase sleep amounts: In addition to improving the quality of sleep, exercise can also help boost sleep duration, in addition to sleep quality.
  • Reduce stress and relieve anxiety: A regular exercise routine can help reduce stress levels. Just exercising for 5 minutes can trigger anti-anxiety responses in the body. Research shows that mind-body exercises such as yoga and stretching can help lower cortisol levels and reduce blood pressure, as well as have positive effects on your mood.

Is it Bad to Work Out Before Bedtime?

The question of whether exercise in the hours before bedtime contributes to poor-quality sleep has been hotly debated over the years. Traditional sleep hygiene dictates that intensive exercise during three hours leading up to sleep can negatively impact sleep because it can increase your heart rate, body temperature, and adrenaline levels. On the other hand, some studies have noted that exercising before bed may not produce any negative effects.

One survey found that the majority of people who exercise at 8 pm or later fall asleep quickly, experience an adequate amount of deep sleep, and wake up feeling well-rested.

Respondents who exercise between 4 and 8 p.m. reported similar outcomes for these categories, suggesting that late-night exercise may benefit some people.

Some sleep researchers speculate that, as a result, many individuals who are unable to exercise earlier in the day may skip workouts altogether. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that working out before bed does not make it harder for most adults to fall asleep and may even help some get better rest.

It's 8 p.m., and you've just tied up some loose ends at work. You debate going for a quick run as you haven't had a chance to work out. But your bedtime is in a few more hours — so, should you exercise before bed or not?

All of us know the inimitable benefits of exercise, from a fitter body to better sleep at night, there are too many. However, when you workout matters enormously in determining which of these benefits do you get to reap. Just as exercising in the morning boosts your alertness and endorphin levels & affects REM sleep, working out too late in the evening can make it harder to fall asleep and sleep through the night. And we all know how insufficient sleep sabotages your performance in the gym — and every other aspect of your life.

When you exercise, your body releases elevated amounts of stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones, along with a spike in your metabolic rate, heart rate, and blood pressure, raise your core body temperature during cardio (or any kind of workout, really).

When your body is in stress mode and battling a higher-than-normal body temperature, you naturally find it harder to fall asleep. Therefore, researchers suggest that one should exercise at least 1 hour before bedtime. Since survey results among people who exercise late at night have been variable, one should base their exercise times and intensity on what best suits their sleep schedule. Certain exercises may be more beneficial for sleep than others. These include yoga, light stretching, and breathing exercises.

Effects of Exercise on Body Temperature During Sleep

When it comes to the timing of exercise, one should be aware that exercising too close to bedtime may interfere with sleep.

Body temperature stays elevated for about 4 hours after finishing exercising. A high body temperature can interfere with one's ability to sleep.

What Does Body Temperature have to do with Sleep

As your body prepares itself for sleep, one may experience a drop in core body temperature—a drop that begins in the late afternoon. The reduced core body temperature contributes to feeling drowsy. Exercising too close to bedtime can reverse that downward shift in body temperature, and keep you awake. For all chronotypes, it's a good idea to avoid everything but the gentlest forms of exercise—light stretching, relaxing yoga, and after-dinner stroll—within 3-4 hours of bedtime.

Night-time Exercise Can Decrease REM Sleep

During sleep, the brain moves through four different stages. One of these stages is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. During this phase, the eyes move rapidly in various directions.

REM sleep typically starts within 90 minutes of a person falling asleep, and it cycles around every 90 minutes. During REM sleep, the body and brain go through several changes, including:

  • Rapid movement of the eyes
  • Fast and irregular breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Changes in body temperature and blood pressure
  • Increased oxygen consumption by the brain

During REM sleep, people may experience vivid dreams due to the increase in brain activity.

REM sleep may benefit learning, memory, and mood. A lack of REM sleep may have adverse implications on physical and mental health.

Exercise Tires Our Body

Physically demanding activities such as exercise increase the pressure to sleep. This pressure, also known as the homeostatic sleep drive increases when one is awake.

Exercise Helps You Fall Asleep Faster

Pre-sleep anxiety is a common experience for many people, particularly those with insomnia. Over time, sleep anxiety can condition people to associate their bed with stress and worry, which in turn can compound these anxious feelings. Exercise can alleviate symptoms of anxiety through biological and psychological means. Physical activity distracts people from thoughts or feelings that trigger anxiety and also triggers processes in the brain that inhibit stress.

Among older adults, several forms of exercise help improve sleep. These include aerobic exercise, resistance training, yoga, etc. However, one study found that mind-body exercises such as yoga were most effective and offered additional benefits like improved mood and mental health. Exercising the mind as well as the body may enable more restful sleep.

Why Does Exercise Timing Matter

When you exercise, the body gets revved up and it becomes difficult to calm down immediately to go to sleep because heart rate and breathing rate go up. So, it is advisable to exercise at least 1-hour before going to bed to maintain ideal sleep hygiene.

Morning: An early morning workout can help reduce blood pressure, maximizing deep sleep. However, your muscles are more likely to be stiff when your body temperature is at its lowest, which is during the first 90 minutes of waking up. For exercise that requires flexibility, schedule it for when your body temperature is at its peak which is about three hours after waking up in the morning.

Mid-day: Between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., your body temperature is at its highest. If you exercise earlier in the afternoon, then later in the day when your internal thermostat drops back to its normal range, this can trigger feelings of drowsiness and help you drop off to sleep.

Evening: Exercising too close to bedtime may interfere with sleep. Working out too late in the day can leave you feeling energized and stimulated right before bed and delay your transition to sleep. Similar to taking a hot bath, exercise can negatively impact your sleep quality by raising your body temperature. It is recommended that you exercise no later than three hours before bed.

Safe Exercises to do Before Sleep

Exercise is a healthy way to release some energy before starting your bedtime routine. Leisurely, moderate-intensity workouts and mind-body activities can be especially beneficial for getting a good night's sleep. These include:

Yoga: Yoga is a great way to promote mental and physical well-being. It focuses on meditation, breathing, and holding different postures. Research suggests that yoga can help alleviate stress, reduce anxiety and depression, and promote mental well-being. It has also been shown to improve sleep in many populations, including cancer patients, and people struggling with symptoms of menopause or arthritis.

Resistance training: If running isn't your thing, lifting weights and other resistance training can have the same benefits. Studies have shown that doing any muscle-strengthening exercise (MSE) is associated with better sleep quality. Resistance training is a form of exercise that makes your muscles work against a weight or force. Some examples of this type of exercise include:

  1. Lifting weights
  2. Using resistance bands
  3. Bodyweight workouts like pull-ups

Aerobics: Aerobic exercises raise heart rate and increase blood flow. This reduces the blood pressure and the risk for cardiovascular disease. Aerobic exercise has shown to be particularly impactful for people with insomnia and other sleep disorders. This type of exercise can improve total sleep time, the ability to sleep through the night, and overall sleep quality. It can also help people with insomnia fall asleep faster, leading some researchers to recommend aerobic exercise as a treatment for this disorder.

Walking: Walking is a cardiovascular form of physical activity, which increases heart rate. This improves blood flow and can lower blood pressure. It helps boost energy levels by releasing certain hormones like endorphins and delivering oxygen throughout the body.

Stretching: Stretching before bed leads to an overall improvement in sleep quality. Stretching can help to reduce body pain, reduce stress, and improve mood, improve circulation.

10 Stretches To Try Before Bed

  • The bear hug
  • Head rolls
  • Spinal twist
  • Kneeling back extension with child's pose
  • Seated forward bend
  • Legs up the wall
  • Butterfly
  • Seated side stretch
  • Knee to the chest and figure four
  • Standing quadriceps stretch

If You Must Exercise Before Bed, Here's how to do it right

If exercising before bed is the only option, then it is suggested that you workout at least a few hours before bedtime. To minimize disruptions to the targeted bedtime when training at night, these three factors should be considered.

how to exercise right before bedtime

  • Intensity: Because vigorous exercise an hour before bedtime delays sleep, one should choose light to moderate intensity workouts at least 1.5 hours before bed. This gives the core body temperature plenty of time to return to baseline without compromising nighttime sleep.
  • Being able to sleep: When deciding how late to work out in the evening, you should take a note of your ability to fall asleep fast. If you are a poor sleeper, i.e., if you are an insomniac, then you should exercise at least 4 hours before the targeted bedtime.
  • Type: You should perform moderate to mild exercises before bedtime. Research shows that three months of Hatha yoga and meditation helps increase melatonin levels which enhances night-time sleep.

Conclusion

The takeaway here is that exercise and sleep share a deep connect, and mild exercise before bedtime benefits sleep. However, it all depends upon the intensity of exercise and timing of exercise. One should not exercise immediately before going to sleep. So, if one's plan is to go to sleep at 10 o'clock, you don't want to start exercising at 9 o'clock. Certain mild exercises such as yoga, stretching, and walking, have proved to be beneficial for getting sound sleep.

Remember, working out before bed doesn't necessarily impede sleep if it is timed properly. In fact, mild exercise before bed may actually help improve REM sleep.

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Rama Manikumar

Rama is a nutritionist and a lifestyle consultant. Having worked in the health industry for more than 20 years, her expertise in health and well-being brings a fresh and healthy approach to everyday habits- food and lifestyle. She walks the talk and delivers excellent quality nutrition, and helps develop habits that peak health & Well- being. Rama Holds a Batchelor’s degree in Biology; Extended/Specialized degree in Nutrition & Dietetics (Pennsylvania State Univ. USA).

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