Exercise and Sleep

Sleep improves with exercise, but exercise also improves with good sleep.

By: Sam Hildreth

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When the global coronavirus pandemic shut down businesses across the country to reduce the spread of COVID-19, gyms and health clubs were an obvious target. Heavy breathing in a confined space with other people huffing and puffing was a recipe for catching a respiratory illness like COVID-19. With spin classes, weight rooms and even sporting events coming to a halt, lifestyles had to adjust. 

For many, that meant putting up the sneakers until life returned to normal. But choice has left us with unwanted pounds. According to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey, 42% of U.S. adults gained undesired weight during the pandemic with an average increase of 29 pounds. 

Sedentary lifestyles aren’t the only thing to blame. During COVID, many people turned to emotional eating to help quell feelings of stress, boredom, loneliness, sadness, fear, and anxiety. They also indulged in late-night snacking when stress-related insomnia kicked in. All the while, we kept promising ourselves we’d get back in shape when things got back to “normal.” 

Well, welcome to the “new normal.” Gyms and weight floors have reopened, and it’s now safe (or safer) to dust off those sneaks, restart your workouts, and finally reap the rewards of exercising, such as increased energy, fat and calorie burn, and even improved sleep. 

Yep, that’s right. Exercise can improve sleep. But the relationship between sleep and exercise is bidirectional. When we sleep, our bodies go to work to repair and restore muscle tissue after, helping to improve physical performance the next day and ultimately aiding in overall good health.

How can exercise improve sleep?

A 2012 study showed that people with chronic insomnia who participated in regular exercise consistently for four weeks fell asleep up to 13 minutes faster and stayed asleep 18 minutes longer. You may assume that’s because they were worn out from all that exercise. But that’s only part of the story. 

 The truth is, while exercise can make your body tired, it can also excite the mind. Exercise floods the body with dopamine, and endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” hormones. It also increases the levels of endocannabinoids, the body’s homemade cannabis producer. For anyone who’s ever experienced a runner’s high, there’s nothing about it that makes you sleepy. Rather, it makes you euphoric.

So then, how does exercise help you sleep? No one can say for sure. But researchers have some possible explanations: 

Reduces anxiety: If you’re prone to anxiety, you are well aware how fretting can keep you up when you’re trying to fall asleep or force you awake during the night. Remember those endocannabinoids that exercise releases? They work the same as a hit of cannabis, melting away stress and anxiety so you are better able to fall asleep. 

Body temperature changes: Sure, exercise increases your core body temperature, but once you cool down, your core body temperature cools down as well. This change in core body temperature is actually similar to the physiologic phenomena that occurs naturally at night when your body prepares to fall asleep. This post-exercise cool-down is thought to signal to the brain that it’s time for sleep. 

Strengthens the circadian rhythm: The circadian rhythm is the body’s natural 24-hour clock that regulates when we fall asleep and when we wake up. When the body senses sundown, it triggers the release of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. When it senses daylight, it rouses us from sleep. Even the slightest disruption in circadian rhythm can trigger episodes of insomnia. Exercising is thought to help reset the body clock, especially if you’re exercising outdoors and getting a heavy dose of sunlight.

When should you exercise?

The time of day you exercise may hold more benefits than others. If you’re flexible with your time, you may consider working out at a different time of the day. Bottom line, the most successful exercise regimens are ones that become a part of your routine regardless of when you exercise. 

Morning 

There are plenty of good reasons to exercise in the morning. For starters, you get it out of the way and the rest of the day is smooth sailing. But it can also reset your circadian rhythm by helping you shake off morning sleepiness. It’s especially helpful if you can exercise outdoors (see “Strengthens the Circadian Rhythm,” above.) 

Another benefit to morning workouts is they may help you burn a few extra pounds. Brigham Young University researchers found that 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercising in the morning can reduce your desire for food. which may ultimately help you lose weight. 

 A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal also found that aerobic exercise in the morning and on an empty stomach is the best way to lose body fat. This is due to the body’s hormone composition shortly after waking, they say.  

Afternoon 

Not everyone is a morning person, and for those, an afternoon workout may be ideal. According to the Journal of Physiology, exercising between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. can have the same positive impact on your circadian rhythm as a morning workout. Plus, it can help you push through “the wall” many people hit in the afternoon.

In fact, a team of Swedish researchers found that high intensity interval training (HIIT) was more beneficial than morning HIIT at improving blood glucose levels in men with type 2 diabetes. 

Evening 

Remember the aforementioned “feel good” hormones and cannabis-like chemicals the body releases during vigorous exercise? They can also prevent you from falling asleep and may throw your circadian rhythm off track. But some health experts have begun disputing this idea. 

“Recent studies have found no evidence to support the theory that evening exercise keeps you awake,” says sleep medicine psychologist Michelle Drerup, PsyD, with the Cleveland Clinic. “Just keep it light to moderate intensity.” If you engage in higher intensity workouts, allow your body time to come down off that aerobic high before trying to go to sleep. 

Speaking of that Zen-like benefit of the exercise-induced chemical release from exercise, it also helps reduce anxiety and stress, helping to lighten your emotional load, which is extremely beneficial before bedtime. 

And don’t discredit the power of yoga. The practice burns calories and tones muscles as well as helps bring about a sense of calm and relaxation. When done before bedtime, yoga can do wonders for your sleep. 

What exercises should you do for better sleep at home?

What exercises are best for improving sleep? Luckily, there are several options available:

Strength Training 

Hormone fluctuations as we age causes us to lose muscle mass. Strength training helps to build back muscle and strength so you are better able to handle daily activities. Here are some great options. 

Squats – Squats are an effective exercise for strengthening the legs and back muscles, and improving core strength. Simply stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointing slightly outward. Then bend the knees and push the hips backwards, keeping the back straight and the torso upright. The movement is similar to sitting down in a chair. Then rise and repeat. 

Push Ups – Push-ups are a great way to build upper body strength, working triceps, pectoral muscles, and shoulders. Traditional push-ups are done by getting into a high plank position on the floor with your hands shoulder-width apart, your shoulders positioned over your hands, and your feet positioned behind you. Balancing on your toes and hands, lower your body toward the floor keeping your torso rigid. Then rise and repeat. Modifications include coming down onto your knees or even standing upright with your hands on a wall and bending toward the wall. 

Lunges – Lunges help strengthen the back, hips, and legs, while also improving mobility and stability. To lunge, simply stand in a split stance with one foot about two to three feet in front of the other. Keeping your torso straight and shoulders back and down, bend both knees to lower your body until the back knee is inches from the floor. Then rise back up again and repeat. 

Cardio Exercise

Cardio exercise, or aerobic exercise, is a rhythmic activity that raises your heart rate and increases your oxygen levels. Aerobic exercise can be low intensity or high intensity or anywhere in between and includes activities such as brisk walking, running, swimming, and biking. Here are some other ways to get your heart pumping:

Jumping Jacks – You may remember jumping jacks from your days in elementary P.E., but the total-body workout you get from jumping jacks makes it an excellent cardiovascular exercise for any age. It’s also easy to do. Stand with your arms by your side, then jump in the air, throwing

your arms sideways overhead while also spreading your legs and landing with your legs apart. Then quickly return to the original position and repeat. 

Squat Jumps – Squat jumps are a plyometric exercise, which is a fancy word for jump-training. It adds a jump with a squat (see description under Strength Training, above) that not only works the leg muscles but gets the heart pumping. It’s like two exercises in one. 

Burpees – Burpees are either a much-loved or much-loathed calisthenic exercise that uses your body weight for resistance. It’s also a bit more challenging to perfect. The burpee is essentially a combination of a squat thrust and squat jump (see description above) and for the more adventurous, with a push-up added on for good measure. 

Stretching 

Stretching is an often overlooked exercise that keeps muscles flexible, strong, and healthy. It’s especially important before and after strength training or cardiovascular workouts to increase flexibility, reduce inflammation, and improve strength. It’s also a great way to relax and destress, especially before bedtime. Here are some great stretching exercises to try: 

Cat/Cow – This exercise is great for relieving tension in the back and can help with posture and balance. Begin with your hands and knees in a table-like position with a neutral spine. Inhale and move into the cow pose by bending your back and lifting your head and chest. Then exhale and come to cat pose, lowering your head and chest and bending your back like a Halloween cat. 

Child’s Pose – The child’s pose provides a sense of calm and stability. Start by kneeling on the floor and bringing your toes together. Separate your knees and lean forward so that your torso rests on your thighs. Place your forehead on the ground and let your hands relax beside you, palms facing up next to your feet. You can also reach your hands forward with palms down to ease tension in your shoulders.

your arms sideways overhead while also spreading your legs and landing with your legs apart. Then quickly return to the original position and repeat. 

Squat Jumps – Squat jumps are a plyometric exercise, which is a fancy word for jump-training. It adds a jump with a squat (see description under Strength Training, above) that not only works the leg muscles but gets the heart pumping. It’s like two exercises in one. 

Burpees – Burpees are either a much-loved or much-loathed calisthenic exercise that uses your body weight for resistance. It’s also a bit more challenging to perfect. The burpee is essentially a combination of a squat thrust and squat jump (see description above) and for the more adventurous, with a push-up added on for good measure. 

Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose – This yoga pose is not only relaxing; it also relieves lower back tension and increases circulation. As the name implies, lets-up-the-wall is achieved by lying on your back and pushing your bottom against the wall. Then walking your legs up the wall so that you are in an L-shaped position. Rest here for several seconds or minutes.

Final Thoughts

With gyms reopening, now’s the perfect time to get back into your exercise routine — or establish a new one. Not only will your mental and physical health improve, so will your sleep. And the benefits of good sleep strengthen your overall health and well-being. So, what are you waiting for?