Does Exercise Improve Sleep?

Mary the AuthorMary Sweeney RN, BSN, CEN, ONN-CG
Updated: March 1, 2020

We Know Exercise Is Important

Exercise is incredibly beneficial to the human body, and may actually have a positive effect on the quality of sleep that you get each night. In this guide, we’ll talk about different types of exercise, the many benefits of exercise on your health, how it impacts your sleep, and some tips and tricks to get you moving in your everyday life. Let’s talk exercise!

Types of Exercise

According to the National Institute of Health, there are four main types of exercise: endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. Here’s a breakdown of each one:

Endurance exercises are also commonly referred to as “cardio” or “aerobic” exercises. This type of exercise gets your heart rate up and increases your breathing, which in turn helps to condition your heart and lungs and improves your fitness level. Examples of endurance exercising may include power walking, jogging, dancing, or certain sports.

Strength exercises do just what the name says – they help your muscles get stronger. This can be accomplished several different ways, including weight lifting, resistance band training, or even exercises using just your own body weight.

Balance exercises can help improve stability and may prevent falls in older adults. These may include things like walking heel-to-toe, standing on one foot, or even Tai Chi or Pilates classes. Core strength training may also improve balance issues.

Flexibility exercises stretch and lengthen muscles, making everyday movements easier. This can help make other types of exercise easier and more appealing. Flexibility exercise may include yoga, Pilates, and many different types of stretching.

Exercise and Sleep

While the benefits of exercise on your body and mind are all well and good, what about the effects it can have on your sleep? There are many studies that suggest that exercise can help you fall asleep more quickly and may help to improve the quality of that sleep. However, it can also negatively impact your sleep. If you’re exercising too late in the day, you may have increased energy levels around bedtime, and that can make it harder to fall and stay asleep.

So, how is it that exercise can improve sleep? Researchers aren’t exactly sure, but they think it may have something to do with aerobic exercise increasing how much “slow wave” or deep sleep you get. In order to understand how it can really affect your sleep, let’s review the sleep cycle. There are two main types of sleep during the sleep cycle: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. Within these two types, there are four stages:

Stage 1: This first stage of NREM sleep is very light, lasting only a few minutes or so. Here, your body is preparing to fall into a deeper sleep, your eye movements slow down, and your brain begins producing alpha and theta waves. During this stage, you can be awoken easily since you’re only lightly sleeping.

Stage 2: During this NREM stage, you’re lightly sleeping but your heart rate slows down, your muscles relax significantly and your body temperature decreases slightly. Eye movements will slow down during this stage, and your brain waves slow down with occasional increases in activity. 

Stage 3: This NREM stage is restorative sleep, the kind that makes you feel refreshed. If someone were to wake you up during this stage, you would likely feel disoriented for a few minutes before realizing your surroundings. Our eye movements slow down or stop, and it’s very difficult to wake us up. This stage is an important one – it’s where your body starts repairing muscle, strengthening your immune system, and other vital processes. This stage is what researchers believe can most be affected by moderate amounts of aerobic exercise or “cardio.”

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep: During REM sleep, our eye movement increase dramatically, like the name suggests. REM sleep is the stage where dreaming happens, and researchers think that the rapid eye movements may be related to the dreaming that you’re doing. During this stage, most of your muscles are in a paralyzed state, to keep you from acting out your dreams. Not to worry, the important muscles like your heart and diaphragm aren’t paralyzed and are working like they’re supposed to!

There are some negative effects of exercise on your sleep cycle. First, aerobic or endurance exercises cause your body to release chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are produced in the brain during and after exercise, and are responsible for the euphoric feeling you may have after a particularly tough workout or run (sometimes known as a “runners high”). These endorphins will keep you feeling more awake for a couple of hours after working out, which is great if you’re a morning exerciser and is not great if you’re a night exerciser. 

Another negative effect of exercise on sleep is the change in your body temperature that may occur after exercising. During and after exercise, your core body temperature rises in response to the work you’re doing. When your body temperature rises, it signals your body that it’s time to wake up. For this reason, it’s a good idea to work out at least 1-2 hours before going to sleep.

How Much Exercise Should I Be Doing?

To get the full benefits of exercise for your body and mind, health professionals recommend getting at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week. The effects of exercise on sleep can be almost immediate, meaning that if you work out for 30 minutes this morning, you are likely to get a better night’s sleep tonight. 

What if I can’t do aerobic exercise? That doesn’t mean you can’t exercise at all! If you have a condition that limits you or prevents you from doing endurance training or aerobic exercise, check out the other types of exercise we listed above. To get the benefits of exercise on sleep, consider trying something like yoga. Yoga not only focuses on flexibility and balance, but also has a mind-body focus on breathing and relaxation. This may be helpful in clearing your mind for a better night’s sleep. Always check with your doctor before beginning an exercise routine.

Exercise Tips

To be on your way to a better night’s sleep, here are a few tips for maximizing the benefits of exercise:

Know your body. Be mindful of how you feel after a workout, and use that information to figure out when the best time of day is for you to exercise. No matter what, be sure you are exercising at least 1-2 hours before bed so you can give your body and mind time to wind down before switching off the lights.

Know your limits. Don’t overdo it, you’ll just be opening yourself up to the likelihood of injury. If you don’t have an exercise routine but would like to start one, consult a healthcare professional to make sure it’s safe to do so. If you currently exercise but would like to change your routine, talk to a strength or fitness trainer to develop a routine that’s best for you. If anything hurts during your workout, STOP. If you’re injured, you won’t be able to work out at all.

Combine types of exercise. It’s easy to fall into a rut when working out. If you’re getting bored with the same old gym routine, try a class! Boutique fitness classes are all the rage right now, and many of them combine different types of exercises into a one-hour class. Try a barre class if you’re into dancing, Pilates if you want more core training, yoga if you want to stretch and relax, or a “boot camp” style class if you want to push yourself a little harder. The sky is the limit these days, so get going!

Hydrate. Your body loses water when you exercise, so it’s important to replace it. Be sure to drink at least 64 ounces of water per day, and even more if you’re working out at higher intensity. Keep a water bottle with you during workouts at all times, and be sure to take sips during your exercise sessions.

Be creative. Exercise doesn’t have to just happen at the gym. If you have a choice, take the stairs over the elevator. Try biking to work, or use mass transit and walk to and from the bus or train stop. Take advantage of nice weather and go on family walks in local parks or trails. Play tag with your kids. The possibilities are endless, so use your imagination and get moving!

Exercise is incredible for both body and mind, and the positive effects on both can be unbelievably beneficial for your sleep. Be sure you are listening to your body and following the above tips to get the maximum benefit. For more information, see the below resources that were used in the creation of this guide.

References and Continued Reading