Most of us know exercise can improve muscle strength, heart health, and energy levels, but regular physical activity can also reduce insomnia and increase deep sleep. Research shows that just 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming, or jogging, can help you fall asleep faster and experience more deep sleep.
What’s more, better sleep can be found after just one day of exercise and will continue to improve with long-term training. Below, we outline precisely how physical activity impacts that body and why it is conducive to a good night’s sleep.
How Can Regular Exercise Affect Your Sleep?
Including exercise into your daily routine can improve your mental and physical health, but it also offers the following sleep-related benefits.
Fall Asleep Faster
One link between sleep and exercise involves body temperature. Your body temperature fluctuates slightly throughout the day—it tends to be higher in the afternoon when you’re alert and lower in the evening when you prepare for sleep.
When you exercise, your core body temperature and alertness increases. As your temperature gradually lowers back down throughout the day, you naturally become tired and fall asleep quickly once it is time for bed.
Whether you workout first thing in the morning or the afternoon, you will still experience this benefit. However, exercise right before bed can increase alertness and inhibit sleep, so it is best to work out at least 2 hours before bed.
Increase Deep Sleep
Exercise increases slow brain waves, total sleep time, and REM sleep, which leads to deeper, more restorative rest. When you spend more time in deep sleep (stage 3 and REM), you experience more healing—slow delta waves clean the brain, important information is stored in long term memory, and HGH works to repair and rebuild muscles. Shortened sleep periods deprive your body of these essential benefits.
The increased adenosine production during physical activity seems to be one of the reasons exercise can improve deep sleep. Adenosine is a vital component of a natural sleep-wake cycle. When adenosine builds up in the body, it gradually causes slower cell activity that leads to drowsiness—helping us drop into deep sleep faster.
Improve Sleep Duration
Exercise requires energy—when you workout, you expend more energy and will naturally require more sleep to feel rejuvenated. After practicing moderate aerobic activity for 16 weeks, evidence shows that sleep duration increases by up to 2 hours.
To experience longer, better quality sleep, a regular exercise routine is vital; however, your workout does not need to be intense to experience these benefits.
Studies show that patients enjoyed a longer sleep time regardless of the type of activity or intensity. But the consistency of activity did make a difference, and most sleepers find a gradual improvement between 4 weeks of experience and 16 weeks.
Alleviate Stress and Anxiety
Stress often triggers insomnia and frequent sleep disruption. When you try to get to sleep while plagued with excessive anxiety, you will likely toss and turn while your mind races with worry.
The flood of cortisol in the body (the stress hormone) keeps the heart racing and the brain active—preventing sleep and relaxation. Unfortunately, this is very common and often creates a vicious cycle—stress can inhibit sleep, but sleep deprivation can aggravate anxiety and make it difficult to handle everyday issues.
Exercise can help break this cycle through the release of endorphins. Endorphins stimulate opioid receptors that minimize pain and increase feelings of well-being.
As you work out, endorphins are released—gradually lower cortisol, adrenaline levels, and regulating mood. Stretching exercises can also help relax the nervous system and lower blood pressure, which can both improve emotional stability and stress management.
Maintain Circadian Rhythm
We each have a circadian rhythm that is linked to the rise and set of the sun. Sunlight exposure inhibits melatonin (the sleep hormone) production during the day and keeps you alert and focused. When the sun sets, and light decreases, melatonin production increases and you become tired. This cycle sets your internal clock and regulates the time of day you often feel sleepy versus awake. When this cycle is not balanced, it can affect our sleep, metabolism, and immune function.
When you exercise in the morning or afternoon, we are helping your body establish this internal clock. Exercise increases your body’s core temperature and promotes wakefulness—creating the shift in your schedule and keeping the sleep-wake cycle intake.
Relieve Chronic Sleep Disorders
Exercise may also help improve symptoms of sleep apnea and Restless Leg Syndrome. Weight loss can alleviate snoring and obstructive breathing, but evidence suggests that moderate exercise can reduce symptoms of sleep apnea even before weight loss beings.
Experts think this may be due to increased oxygen consumption during exercise and improved heart and lung function, both of which can make breathing more comfortable during sleep.
Moderate exercise can also decrease pain associated with Restless Leg Syndrome. Physical activity increases blood flow to the legs. Plus, the dopamine production that comes with working out can reduce pain and discomfort.
How Much Sleep Do You Need For Better Sleep?
The amount of exercise that is right for you will depend on your age, current activity level, and overall health, but most healthy adults should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week.
According to the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association, children should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of intense activity every week.
Adults over 65 should also aim for 150 minutes per week but should be mindful of physical limitations. Walking is a low-risk activity for older adults and offers the same benefits as most moderate aerobic workouts.
When Should I Exercise?
Exercise affects everyone differently, so it is important to listen to your body. Some may find that exercising too close to bedtime increases heart rate and causes the mind to become more active—making it difficult to sleep. But others may find that working out in the evening promotes more relaxation. It depends on what works best for you.
In general, working out in the morning or afternoon tends to offer the most benefits in terms of sleep promotion. Since core body temperature rises during exercise, you are more likely to feel energized after working out. Therefore, the body needs time (at least 2 hours) to cool off before trying to sleep.
Other Ways to Improve Sleep
In addition to regular exercise, maintaining proper sleep hygiene is essential to getting better rest. Below, we offer 5 tips that will set you up for perfect sleep.
Sleep On a Supportive Mattress
It can be difficult to find proper sleep rest on an old, broken down mattress. When resting on a bed with indentations, your body will overcompensate for the lack of support by sleeping in awkward positions. These uncomfortable positions can throw the spine out of alignment and increase tension—causing you to wake with sore, achy muscles and stiff joints.
Memory foam mattresses contour to the curves of the body to provide pressure-free support and pain relief. However, memory foam varies significantly in terms of quality and breathability. To find the best memory foam mattress on the market, look for one that won’t trap heat and also has a responsiveness that will help you feel more lifted on the mattress, rather than sunk.
To find the best mattress for your preferred sleep position, you will want to consider firmness. For those that prefer side sleeping, a soft to medium firmness level will cushion sensitive hips and shoulders while keeping the spine neutral.
Those who prefer back and stomach sleeping may want to opt for something on the firmer side—medium to firm. This firmness will prevent the hips and shoulders from sinking too far down and keep weight evenly distributed.
Create a Relaxing Sleep Space
In addition to an uncomfortable mattress, trying to fall asleep in a hot, stuffy, or cluttered bedroom can prove impossible. Your sleep space should promote relaxation and help alleviate stress and tension from your day. Consider some of our tips below for creating the ideal bedroom:
- Keep it cool: Set your thermostat between 67 and 70 degrees. This temperature will prevent any sleep disruptions due to nighttime sweats or overheating. Also, be sure to use cotton or linen sheets to increase breathability and comfort.
- Keep it organized: Clutter, such as paperwork or laundry, can cause unneeded stress right before bed. Do your best to keep your bedroom organized and remove any stress triggers.
- Keep it quiet: If you sleep with a partner who snores, you may want to consider an adjustable base. These advanced bed frames allow you to slightly alleviate the head with just a click of a button. This slight lift opens airways and reduces snoring so you can both sleep comfortably. If you don’t have an adjustable base, you can also try a wedge pillow.
- Keep it dark: If you have unwanted light coming into your bedroom, either early in the morning or before bed, consider using black curtains or an eye mask. The darkness will help increase melatonin production and encourage sleep.
Establish a Bedtime Routine
Creating a set bedtime and nightly routine can help you mentally and physically prepare for sleep. By maintaining a consistent bedtime, you will gradually reinforce your internal clock—making it easier to fall asleep each night. When you perform the same nighttime routine before bed, you are also signaling the brain that it is time to relax.
To set yourself up for a comfortable sleep, you may want to change into breathable, cozy pajamas, wash your face with warm water, brush your teeth, and perform a relaxing activity before trying to get some shut-eye.
Reduce Blue Light Exposure
As we mentioned above, our circadian rhythm is influenced by sunlight. Darkness triggers melatonin production, causing us to become tired. When we expose ourselves to the blue light from electronic screens before bed, it can cause the brain to think it’s still day time—inhibiting melatonin production and keeping us from sleep.
To prevent wakefulness and disruption to our internal clock, experts suggest avoiding our electronic screens at least 2 hours before bed.
Alleviate Stress Before Bed
Stress and sleep are inextricably linked. When sleep-deprived, we have less control over our breathing and blood pressure—forcing us to react to everyday stressors in unhealthy ways. But stress can also cause wakefulness and racing thoughts.
To prevent this, you can perform a relaxing, stress-reducing activity before bed. Consider taking a warm bath or shower, reading, journaling, or performing a breathing experience. These activities can help you release tension and anxiety, so you can fall asleep peacefully.
Americans are missing out on valuable hours of sleep—about a third of us get below the recommended 7 hours per night. Whether that’s due to stress, insomnia, or intentionally putting off rest, sleep deprivation can be dangerous.
Certainly, stress reduces our focus, decision-making skills, and simple hand-eye coordination, not to mention that it can lead to serious health complications over time. Therefore, we must do what we can to find better sleep.
Regular exercise can help you maintain good health, manage stress, and find the rest you need to be our best.