12 Tips for Better Sleep: Part 2—The Best Time to Exercise
We all know how nice it is to go to bed right after a good workout, especially after sustained physical activity, like a daylong hike, an exhausting day of yard work, or an endless day at a Disney park with a toddler. After those kinds of days, it’s easy to fall asleep the second your head hits the pillow, and it usually feels like the deepest sleep of your life.
Well, you’re not wrong. Studies have shown that exercise frequently increases the amount of deep NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, deepens the quality of sleep, reduces the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, and decreases the number of awakenings during the night.
So, I guess this post is over. Exercise before bed, and you’ll have the best sleep of your life. Case closed. … Or is it?
While exercise can improve your quality and quantity of sleep, this only happens if you exercise at the right time of the day.
When Should I Exercise?
Here’s the general recommendation from experts: Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, but not 2-3 hours before your bedtime. That’s simple enough. But it’s also important to know the “why” so you know how to apply the rules to your life. Let’s get into it.
In Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker says, “… Try not to exercise right before bed. Body temperature can remain high for an hour or two after physical exertion. Should this occur too close to bedtime, it can be difficult to drop your core temperature sufficiently to initiate sleep due to the exercise-driven increase in metabolic rate. Best to get your workout in at least two to three hours before turning the bedside light out.”
Translation: Your body gets hot when you work out, and your body needs to cool down to fall asleep. If you try to go to sleep right after working out, you’ll just lie there until your body cools. Don’t do that.
So, what about those of us who only have time to exercise after work? Well, it’s not all bad news for our nighttime exercisers. In the Journal of Physiology, Anthony Hackney, a professor in the department of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, says, “Evidence suggests that, as long as you’re not exercising, showering, and then [immediately] jumping in bed to go to sleep, it doesn’t interfere with your sleep pattern at all.”
Now that we know nighttime workouts aren’t ideal for our sleep, let’s look at our other options.
Afternoon workouts are great because you’ve already eaten a meal or two, so you should have a little more energy. According to Hackney, “Anytime you eat, your blood sugar levels rise. Sugar in the form of blood glucose … is one of the things we need if we’re trying to work at a higher intensity.”
If you want a high-intensity workout without having a major impact on your sleep, afternoon exercise is a great option. An afternoon workout is also a great way to avoid the mid-day slump. You know, that time when all you want to do is fall asleep at your desk? Instead of passing out on your keyboard, you can take a quick walk or do some desk exercises to wake yourself up.
By exercising in the middle of the day instead of taking a nap, you’re also more likely to be ready to fall asleep at bedtime. Naps—especially after 3 pm or longer than an hour—can disrupt sleep patterns. So, a workout is probably a better way to perk up in the middle of the day than a nap.
The thought of waking up early to workout is about the worst thing I can think of. But it turns out there are a lot of benefits to morning exercise.
The best way to burn stored fat is to work out in the morning, preferably before you’ve had breakfast. Here’s how it works, “People naturally have elevated levels of cortisol and growth hormone in the morning—both of which are involved in metabolism—so you’ll ‘draw more of your energy from your fat reserves.’”
Morning exercisers also have less of an appetite throughout the day, which helps keep their caloric intake down.
While setting an alarm to exercise sounds awful, studies have shown that it’s easier to stick to healthy habits when they are completed in the morning. So, you might dread the first time your alarm goes off at 7 am, but the more you do it, the easier it will become.
Early morning exercise can actually shift your body clock earlier. Meaning, if you get up at 7 am to work out, you’ll be more alert during the morning and get tired earlier in the evening. This will make it easier for you to get up at 7 am the next day and do it all over again.
If you read our first Better-Sleep-Tips post (link to post), you know how important it is to keep a sleep schedule. By starting a morning exercise routine, it will be easier to maintain a healthy sleep schedule, because your body will naturally want to get up at the same time and go to bed at the same time.
Here’s the deal: exercise is good, and sleep is good, and you should be getting both of them. If you exercise at night, try to give your body enough time to cool down so you’re ready to fall asleep at your regular bedtime.
For more tips on how to improve your sleep, stay tuned for our next post on how caffeine and nicotine affect your sleep.