Take a moment to consider this: Say you enjoy a long, productive workout, whether that means running through the park or lifting at your friendly neighborhood YMCA. When the workout is over, do you feel so drained that you’re ready to crash into your bed? Or is your heart pumping so fast, sleep is absolutely out of the question?
This scenario brings up the very real but complicated relationship between sleep and exercise. While exercise can be a critical component of sleep hygiene, both the timing and the nature of your workout matter a great deal.
Johns Hopkins Medicine puts this relationship into sharp relief: “Working out is great for your body and mind – and it can also help you get a good night’s sleep. But, for some people, exercising too late in the day can interfere with how well they rest at night.”
Let’s take a closer look at the nature of the relationship between daily physical exertion, and quality of sleep.
The Effects of Exercise on Sleep
We’ll start with the positive: According to one doctor from Hopkins, daily exercise “does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly,” and may also improve the quality of that sleep. Researchers still have plenty of questions about why this is the case, but one thing that’s certain is that exercise can help stabilize mood and decompress the mind, both of which allow the body to more naturally transition into a restful state. Additionally, scientists have found that exercise increases “slow wave sleep,” which is the deep, restorative state of sleep that allows the body and brain to feel refreshed.
One of the central issues to think about is timing; while some daily physical exercise may make it easier to fall asleep, exercising later in the day may actually be counterproductive. A Harvard study confirms this, noting that it’s best not to exercise within an hour of bedtime. One explanation is that aerobic exercise releases endorphins, brain chemicals that stimulate mood and alertness; endorphins may make you feel “keyed up,” and in turn make it harder to find peace and quiet. Additionally, exercise raises the core body temperature, which sends a signal to the brain that it’s time to be up and awake.
Both the Hopkins and Harvard articles note that the timing of exercise matters, and that most individuals will want to allow themselves an hour or two to “unwind” between exercise and going to bed. Beyond that, the scientific consensus is pretty clear: Exercise can help you sleep better, and it really doesn’t matter very much what time of the day you do it.
As for the amount and type of exercise required, Hopkins advocates for aerobic exercise, and posits that only half an hour of daily exercise is needed to achieve positive effects come bedtime.
Sleep and Athletic Performance
For athletes, sleep takes on a heightened level of importance. Studies have shown that a lack of good, sound sleep can have a corrosive impact on an athlete’s mental clarity and physical performance.
The issue here pertains to muscle recovery. While your body sleeps, it produces human growth hormone, which helps repair damaged muscle as well as build healthy new muscle. Without seven to nine hours of good, deep sleep, this process doesn’t take place, which means athletes are much slower to recover from injury or to develop real muscle strength.
So what happens to those who don’t get sufficient rest each night? Studies show that athletes who don’t get the level of sleep they need each night become exhausted more rapidly, as their bodies didn’t enjoy the full effects of human growth hormone production.
Additionally, athletes who don’t get enough sleep at night have their metabolic processes disrupted, which can lead to changes in their insulin resistance as well as the way their body metabolizes carbohydrates and other nutrients. According to the research, “The role of growth hormone in mediating altered carbohydrate metabolism may be of particular relevance as to how sleep deprivation alters the supply of energy substrate to the muscle.”
Tips for Maximizing Sleep and Performance
For those looking to make the most of their daily exercise, and to optimize each night’s sleep, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Consume Protein Before Bed
Nutrition can play a significant role in sleep quality. In particular, it may be helpful to consume some lean proteins, which aid in the body’s muscle-building and muscle recovery processes. In other words, protein can help you make the most of those human growth hormones.
Avoid Excess Alcohol
One thing to avoid? Drinking excess alcohol before bed. While alcohol may initially make you sleepy, it’s been linked with sleep disturbances during the second part of the night, which may cause you to wake up feeling poorly rested.
Create the Right Sleep Environment
Make sure you have everything you need to get comfortable and to transition from wakefulness to sleep, starting with a comfortable mattress. Ensure the bedroom is cool and dark. Remove electronic devices that emit blue light, which can interfere with your body’s internal clock.
Do Some Yoga
Pre-bedtime yoga can help clear your mind, release tension, and help you feel ready for bed… both mentally and physically. Specifically, yoga can help minimize the production of stress hormones.
Have a Consistent Routine
Finally, note that many sleep experts say keeping a consistent bedtime and wake-up time is key. “Keeping a regular sleep schedule—even on weekends—maintains the timing of the body’s internal clock and can help you fall asleep and wake up more easily,” says one Harvard report.
The Bottom Line
Daily exercise, when timed properly, can help you sleep better at night; and at the same time, a good night’s rest can help you get more out of each workout. Take some time to consider your own daily routines, and how your physical exertion and sleep hygiene play into one another.
Featured image: Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock
Joe Auer is the editor of Mattress Clarity. He mainly focuses on mattress reviews and oversees the content across the site.
He likes things simple and take a straightforward, objective approach to his reviews. Joe has personally tested nearly 250 mattresses and always recommends people do their research before buying a new bed. He has been testing mattresses for over 5 years now, so he knows a thing or two when it comes to mattress selection. He has been cited as an authority in the industry by a number of large publications.
Joe has an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and an MBA from Columbia University.