You know exercise burns calories, so it affects weight management and it’s important for heart health, too, but what about sleep? Does exercising impact your sleep schedule, as well? Put simply, yes, if you have trouble closing your eyes and drifting off or staying asleep all night long, it may be because you are not active enough. Before you reach for a bottle of pills to treat your chronic insomnia, consider how exercise and other smart, healthy habits will improve your sleep naturally.
Sleep and Exercise: What’s the Connection?
If you do have poor sleep habits, you are not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists insufficient sleep as a major public health issue in this country. A 2009 analysis conducted by the CDC found that about 48 percent of the study participants stated they got less than seven hours of sleep each day. More importantly, 37 percent claimed to fall asleep during the day hours, which might explain the over 1,500 fatalities each year associated with driving while drowsy.
Sleep hygiene is defined as behavior designed to promote quality sleep, including certain lifestyle choices like regular exercise. Lack of exercise may be at the heart of many sleep disorders, according to researchers at Northwestern University. They conducted a study to measure the effect exercise has on sleep habits in middle-aged to older adults who were less active than recommended.
The scientists broke them up into two exercise groups:
- One did two 20-minute workout sessions four times a week
- One did 30 to 40-minutes of exercise four times a week
Both groups strived to reach 75 percent of the maximum heart rate in at least two activities.
A third control group was established, as well. These participants didn’t exercise at all but instead exerted themselves mentally. The active groups slept better and reported less depression and daytime sleepiness.
How Exercise Affects Sleep
Sleep isn’t just about how long you are in bed each night. Sleep quality is actually broken down into multiple categories:
- Duration – How much a person sleeps in 24-hours
- Sleep continuity – How fast a person falls asleep
- Timing – When a person goes to sleep in each 24-hour period
- Alertness – During the waking hours
- Satisfaction – How well a person sleeps
- Depth – This refers to sleep stages and brain activity
- Exercise works to improve the quality of your sleep by providing better sleep continuity and enhanced satisfaction. Better sleep automatically improves timing, because sleep habits become more consistent, as well.
Vigorous vs. Moderate Exercise
In a survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, respondents indicated:
- Up to 67 percent slept better with exercise
- 26 percent found vigorous exercise offered the most benefit
- 66 percent of those who do exercise vigorously stated they get all the sleep they need to feel good compared to 55 percent who only exercised moderately or lightly
- 50 percent of the vigorous exercisers stated they were able to maintain momentum better during the day as a result of quality sleep
- The truth is all exercise helps, but the more intense the better you sleep.
Exercises Worth Doing Before Bed
Effective exercisers develop routines that might include doing specific exercises right before bed to further enhance sleep quality. Few types of exercises say relax and go to sleep like yoga. The right poses are enough to ease your mind and body in preparation for sleep. Consider some moves that help promote sleep and mental relaxation.
Lie on your back and slide your bottom up next to a wall, leaving about six inches of space between your skin and the surface. Extend your legs so they rest flat on the wall while spreading your arms to the side. Maintain this pose for up to two minutes, slowly inhaling and exhaling to promote relaxation.
Sit with your legs crossed in front of you. Place one hand on the opposite knee while twisting at the waist until you feel the core muscles engage. Hold as you breathe in deeply and then exhale. Reset to center and repeat the exercise twisting to the other side. Do this for up to three minutes.
The Child’s Pose
Get into a table pose with your shoulders over your hands and your hips over your knees. Push back until your bottom is resting on your feet and your hands are stretched overhead. Your face is facing the floor. Hold this position for up to five minutes playing close attention to your breathing.
Roll over to your back and pull your knees towards your chest, crossing your ankles. Place your hands just above your crossed ankles and pull your knees in further and hold the pose for up to 7 minutes.
Any one of these exercises alone or in combination will improve your quality of sleep by relaxing your body and calming your mind.
Avoid intense cardio exercises before bed unless that’s what you are used to and it works for you. For most people, a heavy workout disrupts circadian rhythms. Save your jogging for mornings or early in the evening instead and just do stretches close to bedtime.
5 Easy Fixes the Go Beyond Exercise
Exercise is a critical part of any healthy lifestyle and certainly will work to improve your sleep quality, but it is just one step in developing good sleep habits. Other things you’ll want to do include:
- Go to bed at the same time each night – This includes weekends or your regular days off. The more consistent you are, the easier it will be to fall asleep.
- Get up at the same time each day – The flip side of the consistency coin is wake up times. If you get up for work each day at 8:00, keep that going even on your days off. This will make it easier to maintain that stable bedtime.
- Choose bedtime snacks wisely – Avoid going to bed with either a full or hungry stomach. When choosing a bedtime snack, avoid things that contain caffeine like soda or chocolate. Limited what you drink an hour before bed, too, to keep from waking up to go to the bathroom.
- Create a Ritual at Bedtime – In other words, do the exact same thing each night. If you shower at night than always shower at night, for example, but whatever you do, do it consistently. This will send a message to your brain that it is time to prepare to sleep.
- Make Sure the Bed Comfortable – If you are having trouble getting comfortable at night, figure out why. Is it the mattress? How about the pillows? Do whatever is necessary to make that space as sleep inducing as possible.
While regular exercise is just part of the sleep puzzle, it’s an important one. Develop a fitness schedule and stick to it to get a better night’s sleep.