Can exercise really help you to sleep better?
It’s been a rough night; you’re tired and sluggish and counting down the hours to when you can crawl back into bed. The last thing you probably feel like doing is hitting the gym or attending an aerobics class, and this is understandable. However, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that exercise, whether we like it or not, can have a positive impact on our sleep patterns.
One study by the Department of Neurology, Northwestern University, examined the effects of aerobic exercise on chronic insomnia and found that the results were optimistic, with participants experiencing fewer episodes of anxiety and noticeable improvements in their sleep quality.1 It’s important to note though, that this ‘moderate aerobic exercise’ wasn’t anything too drastic and, in some cases, was simply walking more.
However, despite this positive news, it’s important to note that this exercise regime would have to be consistently maintained for a long period of time. As Dr Baron uncovered in a later study, insomnia sufferers are in a state of hyper-arousal and exercise, at least in the short-term, can act as a physical stressor. However, over a long period of time, exercise may regulate your stress response.2
Is this really that surprising though, that exercise can help in instances of sleep disturbances? Broken or disturbed sleep patterns during the night are usually, on some level, linked to stress. I’ve already discussed the role that stress can play in interrupting your sleep in ‘How to overcome stress for a better night’s rest’ but suffice to say, lowering your stress levels can have an overwhelmingly positive influence on your sleep.
And when it comes to lower stress levels, exercise is at the top of our list. Although you might not realise it at the time, when you exercise your body produces endorphins, happy hormones that act as a natural painkiller, reducing stress and improving sleep! It’s even thought that exercise can help to reduce your secretion of stress hormones, regulating your mood.3
Even in cases where sleep disturbances were more based around age than sleep, studies have found that moderate exercise can help to improve the sleep patterns of sedentary elders, reducing their insulin levels, which may have a positive influence on their blood sugar levels and metabolism, although further research is still needed.4
How does sleep affect your workout?
Okay, so exercise might have a few happy results for your sleep patterns, but how much can you really achieve in the gym if you’re sleep deprived? Well, one night of poor sleep is unlikely to have a real impact on your performance, but if your sleep problems have been occurring for over a week, you’ll start to notice a definite dip.
This is largely due to the effects that sleep deprivation can have on your concentration, your cardiovascular system and your metabolism.5 If you’re not sleeping properly, your levels of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for your appetite, will increase, making you crave sugary, fatty foods which can then impact your blood sugar levels and insulin resistance – for more information, see my blog ‘Is your lack of sleep making you overeat?’
Sleep problems can also inhibit your body’s ability to recover as the human growth hormone (HGH) is secreted while you sleep. Not to mention poor sleep can also make you more susceptible to pain6, with insomnia often being linked to migraines meaning that if you do suffer any injuries, you’re more likely to feel it.
The good news is that, if you’re sleeping well, it can do wonders for your exercise routine, helping to improve your endurance and keeping you energised so you can hit your peak.
Can exercise cause sleep problems?
I’ve talked about how exercise can benefit your sleep, but is it possible that exercise can also cause sleep problems? The answer, unfortunately, is yes but this has more to do with how and when you’re exercising.
If you over-exercise, for example, it can cause what is known as ‘post-workout insomnia.’ This state can be triggered when inflammatory chemicals, such as cortisol and adrenaline are released due the strenuous nature of your activity.
When you exercise also matters – if you’re hitting the gym or exercising a couple of hours before bedtime, then you are going to have some difficulty sleeping, either due to post-workout fatigue or muscle pain. Most experts seem to agree that exercising around 6 hours before your normal bedtime can have the best results, although it can depend on the intensity of your exercise.
Morning exercise: Many people prefer to get exercise out of the way in the morning so that they can have the rest of the day to themselves. It’s also thought that, if you exercise on an empty stomach, it can help to prevent insulin resistance and weight gain, forcing your body to burn fat.
Afternoon exercise: Exercising in the afternoon has been linked to regulating your circadian rhythm and is thought to result in better muscle performance and reduce your risk of developing an injury as your body temperature should be slightly warmer.
In truth, when you exercise is up to you – provided you try to keep your regime consistent and avoid working out in the hours leading up to your bedtime, you should still reap the same sleep-enhancing results!
What is the best exercise to improve your sleep?
Any exercise that gets your heart pumping is bound to be good for your sleep. It doesn’t have to be too vigorous – although we’re all for getting your allotted 150 minutes of exercise a week (30 minutes for 5 days), anything that gets you moving should do the trick, whether it’s a brisk walk or 10 minute stretches of intense exercise.
If you want some inspiration for a few aerobic exercises that you can comfortably do in your own time, you could check out some of our endurance videos – as demonstrated in the video above, even a few jumping jacks can make all the difference!
If you’re new to exercise or suffer from stress, mindful stretching is definitely the right starting place for you. It’s a gentle, low-impact form of exercise that relies on a combination of relaxing poses, deep stretches and specific breathing techniques, all of which can help to gradually reduce your stress levels and even help insomnia!
It’s also useful if you’re looking to improve your flexibility and prevent muscle stiffness. Best of all though, you can do stretching poses in the comfort of your own home. Just take a look at the video above for some inspiration!
If you’re new to exercise, strength training might be a bit daunting – possibly you’re picture the hard core body builders lifting weights at your local gym. However, strength training isn’t all weights and protein powders and can be a surprisingly good way of improving your sleep by building muscle – check out our Get Active advisor’s blog on how to build muscle naturally for more information.
Simple exercises such as squats, sit-ups and push-ups can help to tone and strengthen your body and, while challenging, shouldn’t leave you too out of breath!