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Physical Activity and Sleep: How It Affects Health

Written by Dr. Pramod Mane on Fri, 11 November 2022

Key Highlights

  • Scheduling a fixed routine for workout, in your busy life, will help improve sleep quality. 
  • Sleep hygiene, mild exercise, yoga are some of the activities you can try to improve your sleep quality.
  • Mild physical activity before sleep can induce a good night's sleep.
  • Exercise tires your body & improves the circadian rhythm which in turn improves the quality of sleep.
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Should I or should I not exercise before going to bed? Will it keep me awake? Or will it help me fall into deep sleep? Majority of us are plagued by these questions. Let's understand if exercising can truly help you sleep better.

Mild exercise is great for your body and mind, and it can also help you get a good night's sleep. But sometimes, exercising too late in the day can interfere with how well you rest at night. However, if you get your body moving and do not become sluggish, the quality of sleep will be better.

Numerous studies have shown that exercise improves sleep quality, and better sleep means more energy. Also, it is easier to exercise when you have energy. This is a wonderful cycle. Exercise is essential for your overall health and wellbeing.

Short-duration physical activity can also improve your mood and cognitive function, alleviate anxiety, and decrease your risk of acquiring chronic diseases and other medical conditions. That said, how you exercise, how much, and when you exercise will affect your sleep in diverse ways.

In addition, a good night's sleep is important for those who exercise regularly as sleep allows your body to recover from the previous day's workout. Getting enough rest after a mild exercise strengthens your muscles, which can help you feel refreshed and prevent exercise-related injuries. Conversely, poor sleep may lead to lower physical activity levels during the day and affect your quality of life.

Does physical activity help you sleep better?

Numerous studies have explored the link between exercise and sleep, and most conclude that certain types of physical activities improve the quality of sleep and duration. Interestingly, certain forms of exercise can also adversely impact sleep quality and prevent us from getting enough rest.

The best exercises to improve sleep depends on your age and lifestyle. For instance, some studies found that moderate exercise over several weeks can improve sleep quality and duration for adolescents, whereas vigorous exercise during the same timespan has been shown to decrease sleep duration in some teens.

How does exercise improve your sleep

Exercise influences sleep and leaves us feeling refreshed at both the physical and the mental level. Understanding this complex relationship between exercise and sleep is key to creating an effective exercise routine.

How exercise can help you sleep better1. Exercise tires the body

Physically demanding activities such as exercise increase the pressure to sleep that naturally builds throughout the day. This pressure (also known as the homeostatic sleep drive) increases while you are awake. Sleeping resets the sleep drive, as it begins a new one when you wake up the following day.

A physically strenuous job can also expedite the sleep drive, but exercise is considered better for sleep quality. This is because people with jobs that have strong physical demands often experience musculoskeletal pain that can disturb sleep.

2. Exercise helps you fall asleep faster

Overthinking and pre-sleep anxiety are common phenomenon for many people, particularly those with insomnia. After a while, anxiety before sleep can condition people to associate their bed with stress and worry, which in turn can add to these anxious feelings.

Exercise alleviates these anxious feelings & other symptoms of anxiety through biological and psychological means. Physical activity distracts people from thoughts or feelings that trigger anxiety, and physical activity also triggers processes in the brain that inhibit stress.

Among older adults, several forms of exercises appear to help improve sleep. These include aerobic exercises, resistance training, yoga, and tai chi. However, a study found that yoga or tai chi & mind-body exercises were the most effective in improving sleep, as they offered additional benefits like improved mood and better mental health. Exercising the mind as well as the body may enable more restful sleep.

3. Outdoor exercise reinforces circadian rhythms

Exposure to light, especially sunlight in the morning, can help regulate the body's internal body clock and promote sleep at night. Exercising outdoors in the fresh air, especially in the morning can help reinforce these natural rhythms. This benefit may be particularly helpful for older adults since circadian rhythms can become weaker with age.

Natural light, especially sunlight, plays a prominent role in the circadian rhythm. Daylight entering the eyes sends signals to your circadian clock, triggering the production of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that keep you alert. The circadian clock is also signaled in the evening and your body produces a hormone called melatonin that promotes feelings of sleepiness and relaxation. People who struggle with sleep often benefit from exposure to sunlight when they are awake. Therefore, exercising outdoors during the day can improve sleep in many effective ways.

4. Reduced stress and anxiety levels

A good and consistent exercise routine can work wonders for your stress levels, as stress is one of the most common causes of poor sleep. Mild exercise will help you get better sleep.

Exercising for just five minutes can stimulate your anti-anxiety response. Exercises that stimulate both the mind and body, like yoga, are proved to be good at slowing the nervous system and in turn helping you relax. Moreover, yoga and other stretching exercises can also help lower your blood pressure, which will also give you good sleep while improving your heart health.

Benefits of mild exercise before sleep

1.Improved sleep quality

Not only does exercising make it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep, but it can also induce better sleep quality.

When you engage in physical activity consistently and regularly, you will experience each stage of the sleep cycle in a more balanced way which means you will experience a more evenly balanced sleep duration and get the benefits from each stage of sleep, thus leading to improved sleep quality.

2. Reduced risk of insomnia and other sleep disorders

Many scientific pieces of evidence indicate that exercise can be a highly effective and natural therapy for sleep disorders, such as insomnia.

Studies have demonstrated that exercise has positive influence on sleep, thus improving the duration and quality of sleep. In fact, all types of exercises have this positive influence.

Exercising regularly can in turn help reduce the severity of an existing sleep disorder and eventually improve the symptoms altogether. It can also help regulate your breathing when you sleep and reduce the risk of suffering from sleep apnea.

3. Exercise can reduce sleepiness during the day

Even moderate physical activity when performed consistently can keep you feeling fresh throughout the day, and thereby lead to improved sleep during the night, and these findings have been observed across age groups. This could be because of a link between exercise and the positive effects it can have on conditions such as depression and obesity.

Therefore, it is important to be consistent with your exercise regime and sleep better. By reducing the symptoms of these conditions, exercise also help reduce the effect that they have on your sleep. This means you will experience better sleep as a result of more consistent exercise.

How Long Should You Exercise For Better Sleep?

People who engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may see a difference in their sleep quality that very night.

Find out what works for you, which exercise you enjoy the most. Is it going for a walk or a dancing session that you would enjoy more? For some, yoga could be refreshing and for some, working out at a gym could lead to feeling rejuvenated. So, find the right workout for you.

Moreover, while many studies focus on aerobic activity and sleep, picking an exercise you like will help you stick with it. For example, powerlifting or an active yoga class can elevate your heart rate, while helping you create the biological processes in the brain and body that contribute to better quality sleep.

When You Exercise May Matter

How your exercise time can affect your sleepExercising both in the morning and evening has been shown to promote deep sleep, and the duration of sleep is not impacted by exercising in the morning versus in the evening. However, you may be able to maximize the benefits of exercising for better sleep by tailoring your exercise schedule to your personal needs.

For some people, evenings can be a wonderful time to exercise after work. If that is the only time you have available for exercise, you might benefit more from exercising at night than not exercising at all. Numerous studies suggest that people with insomnia benefit from aerobic workouts that build their cardiorespiratory strength. That said, if you notice night-time exercise makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep, you might want to avoid it.

Practicing either aerobic (such as running) or resistance (such as weightlifting) exercises in the morning can help you fall asleep faster at night. If you have time available during the afternoon and early evening, then high-intensity exercises may also promote sound sleep. Working out at this time of the day seems to contribute to drowsiness by lowering levels of orexin, a neurotransmitter that promotes wakefulness.

If you fall asleep easily but you find yourself frequently waking up throughout the night, you may find it more useful to add an evening exercise routine. Resistance exercise or light aerobic exercise performed in the early evening are best for reducing waking up several times in the night, possibly because they impart the benefits of exercise without excessively raising your body temperature. 
 

You may have to experiment according to your routine to find an exercise schedule that works for you. If you cannot fall asleep after exercising in the morning, try shifting your workouts or try alternate methods. If you cannot fall asleep after exercising at night, it might help to schedule your workouts earlier in the day.

One study found that people who performed moderate or intensive exercises three hours before bedtime, fell asleep faster than those who did not. But our body needs about 90 minutes to return to a resting state after exercise. Therefore, avoid working out immediately before heading to bed.

How does sleep impact exercise

The role sleep plays in our physical activity levels have not been studied as thoroughly, and much of the research has focused on differences in physical activity between people with sleep disorders and healthy individuals. However, those who experience poor sleep are less active than those with healthy sleep cycles. In particular, people with certain sleep disorders are not as likely to exercise during the day.

Adults with insomnia tend to be less active than those without insomnia. The same is true for people with OSA and other types of sleep-disordered breathing, though excess weight may also be a factor for this population.

Studies have noted that nightly shifts in sleep quality, latency, and efficiency can be used to predict physical activity levels. For example, one study found that a 30-minute increase in sleep onset was associated with a one-minute decrease in exercise duration the next day.

Yoga is a great practice 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 populations, including cancer patients, and people struggling with symptoms of menopause or arthritis.

Exercise Tips for Getting Better Sleep

Exercise tips for getting better sleepRegular exercise is essential for healthy sleep hygiene. Originally conceived as a treatment for insomnia, sleep hygiene refers to a set of behavioral and environmental strategies for promoting regular healthy sleep.

Exercise for 30 minutes: Prioritizing your health and sleep by committing to 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day could be as simple as taking your pet for a walk, or sun salutations when you wake up. There is no need to overdo it; while longer and more intense workouts will improve your physical health, you will see sleep benefits after 30 minutes of activity.

Experiment to see what works best for you: Working out in the morning does not work for everyone. Try different things to find the routine that works for you. Consistency is key of course. Find a time and regime that fits into your life.

Each one of us has to find our regimen which is exactly right for us, e.g., if you feel that your evening workout is keeping you awake at night, try shifting your exercise schedule to another time of the day and check. Changing the type of exercise can also help; it could be a brief normal paced walk, or breathing exercises, or combining physical activity with mindfulness like yoga, find what works for you best.

If you struggle with anxiety or racing thoughts before bed, try a mind-body workout to release tension. Also, it is important to check with your physician before you embark on a new workout journey.

Get regular sleep for more intense workouts: There is a bidirectional relationship between sleep and exercise. While exercise can help you fall asleep, getting a good amount of sleep will in turn help your workouts. You will be more inclined to get up and go to the gym after a good night's sleep.

Try a fitness tracker: Fitness trackers can help not just in recording workouts but to also keep you motivated and help with comprehensive sleep data. Having this data at your fingertips can help you determine which exercise routine fits your life the best. It can also give you valuable insights into your sleep cycle, which you can use to optimize your workouts and health.

Conclusion

We deal with a variety of things in our day to day lives that can cause anxiety and stress. This can lead to disrupted sleep and other sleep disorders. Physical activity even for a short duration of time can help enhance physical fitness and in turn, enhance the quality of sleep.

Physical activity can improve stress levels by triggering anti-anxiety responses. Yoga, stretching and other mind-body exercises can help enhance mood and have a positive effect on sleep. For more help to improve your sleep hygiene and for finding an appropriate workout routine for your health goals, talk to your doctor or a professional sleep specialist. 
 

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Dr. Pramod Mane

A Doctor of Medicine (MD) in Pharmacology., currently based in Mumbai, India, Dr Pramod Mane, comes with an experience of more than 20 years of working in Medical Affairs in the Pharmaceuticals & Nutraceutical Industry. Director of Medical Services at Mega Lifesciences since 2008, Dr Mane has been associated with several MNCS in the areas of Medical Affairs, Medical Services, Medico-marketing, Pharmacovigilance & Clinical trials in his illustrious career.

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