How Can Exercise Help You Sleep Better?

Woman stretching outdoors.

At a Glance

  • Insomnia is a distressing condition which can severely affect health, damage relationships and cause accidents.
  • Exercise can improve the length and quality of sleep, and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep at bedtime.
  • Not all types of exercise are beneficial in improving sleep, and the time of day you exercise can also make a big difference.

Not being able to sleep – also referred to as insomnia – can be one of the most frustrating things ever, especially if it continues for more than a few nights. If it goes on for longer than that…well, speaking from personal experience, it’s a disaster.

When I don’t get enough sleep, I find it difficult to focus on my work; I’m cranky and irritable, my relationships suffer, not to mention the detrimental effects on health and well-being.

I take solace in the fact that I’m most definitely not alone in this experience.

The National Sleep Foundation reports that 30% of adults worldwide have difficulty sleeping. This figure increases with age; almost 50% of elderly people suffer from some form of long term sleep problem. (source)

So what can we do to help improve sleep?

One of the things we can do is exercise. Scientific research has established a clear link between exercise and sleep, but it is important to do the right kind of exercise and to get the timing right. In this article, I’m going to take a deeper look into how exercise can help you sleep better.

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is defined as difficulty with sleep, but this can take different forms. Some people have difficulty falling asleep when they initially go to bed, tossing and turning before finally dropping off.

Other people have no problem falling asleep quickly when they go to bed, but find they wake several times in the night, resulting in disturbed, poor quality sleep.

A third type of sleep difficulty is sleep disturbance which doesn’t cause waking, but interrupts the normal sleep cycle, resulting in poor quality sleep.

A further type of insomnia is concerned with waking after too little sleep, and not being able to return to sleep again once woken.

Why Is Sleep Important?

It might seem obvious, but there are several different reasons why sleep is important for our bodies. For example, sleep:

  • Refreshes our brain and makes sure our nervous system is functioning well
  • Gives the body the rest it needs to repair and renew damaged cells and tissues
  • Improves memory
  • Reduces stress levels
  • Improves sports performance
  • Revitalizes our immune system
  • Promotes good mental and emotional health
  • Increases chemicals in the body that help to avoid obesity
  • Improves focus and concentration during the day
  • Reduces the likelihood of judgment errors and accidents (source)

What Causes Insomnia?

There are a huge variety of factors which can contribute to not getting a decent night’s sleep, such as:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • Pain
  • Poor or irregular bedtime routine
  • Unsuitable sleeping environment
  • Shift work
  • Medication
  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine and other stimulants
  • Caffeine
  • Medical conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, heart conditions, Parkinson’s disease and arthritis
  • Lifestyle changes – such as a new baby in the family, moving home, noisy neighbors or excessive lighting. (source)

How Can Exercise Help You Sleep Better?

Studies have shown that exercise has a significant effect in improving sleep. Although initial studies suggested that exercise was not effective enough to compare with conventional treatments for insomnia such as medication, more recent research indicates otherwise.

Since exercise has been researched more thoroughly in relation to insomnia, we have discovered some important information which has a significant bearing on how effective exercise can be in improving sleep.

Only Some Types of Exercise Improves Sleep

In a 2008 study for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, researchers examined the effects of several different types of exercise on people diagnosed with long term insomnia.

They found that intense aerobic exercise (running) and weight training were not as effective in improving sleep as moderate intensity aerobic activity. This study found that the strongest effects on insomnia were achieved by people who participated in walking at a moderate pace.

These participants showed a 54% improvement in the time taken to get to sleep, a 36% reduction in night time waking and a 37% increase in total sleep time.

In addition, these people also showed a 15% reduction in anxiety levels, and researchers could confidently state that exercise can be used as a first line treatment for insomnia. (source)

Timing Is Everything

Man facing the other way, watching the sunset outdoors.

According to some research, people who complete their moderate aerobic exercise in the early morning significantly improved their sleep time by as much as 85%.

In contrast, people who exercised in the evening did improve sleep but to a lesser degree than those who exercised in the morning.

The study concluded that it’s more beneficial to exercise in the early morning in terms of making the maximum difference to sleep, and suggested there may be several physiological factors to explain this.

One possible reason is that exercise causes an increase in brain activity, mental alertness and increased adrenaline.

However, sleep experts maintain that exercise at any time of day helps to improve sleep to some extent, so if the only free time you have to exercise is in the evening, it’s better than no exercise at all.

If your insomnia is severe and causing major problems for you, then your best plan is to exercise for at least forty-five minutes every morning, and maintain this as a consistent long term activity, as it has been shown to have the most beneficial effect.

If you can’t manage forty-five minutes in one go, studies have shown that several short activity sessions are just as effective at improving sleep.

If your time in the morning is at a premium, maybe try to aim for a twenty minute walk first thing in the morning and another at lunchtime, to avoid evening exercise and get your daily quota. At the very least, allow yourself a few hours between the time you exercise and the time you plan to sleep. (source)

Exercise Helps to Reduce Depression

Depression is a complex medical condition related to mood state. Several research studies have reported a link between depression and poor sleep.

Suffering from insomnia can drastically affect our mood, and depression can also reduce the amount and quality of sleep we get.

Even though depression can also have the opposite effect of making us need to sleep more, this sleep is generally low quality and not the refreshing type of sleep we need.

One research study on the effects of exercise on sleep quality found that not only did exercise improve the duration and quality of sleep; it was also linked with significant improvements in depression and low mood.

The study also found that exercise caused an increase in daytime alertness, which can help us to avoid some of the problems of lack of focus, poor concentration, poor judgment and increased risk of accidents that are associated with insomnia. (source)

Yoga and Sleep

Woman doing some yoga exercise for better sleep before going to bed.

Yoga is a calming form of exercise which involves a combination of different body postures, breathing techniques and meditation. It has been shown to reduce blood pressure, stress, anxiety and improve quality of sleep.

According to research, the traditional theory behind yoga is to help to the body balance physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, and it has been shown to decrease levels of adrenaline.

One study which compared a group of people who regularly practiced yoga every morning for a minimum of one hour with a group of people who didn’t practice yoga, and found that the yoga group had significantly fewer disturbances when sleeping, took much less time to get to sleep, used less sleeping medication, and reported a much better quality of sleep. (source)

Yoga has also been proven in research to improve nervous system function, decrease cholesterol and angina attacks and improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes.

In addition, research indicates yoga is beneficial in terms of increasing heart and lung efficiency, improving general physical fitness, work capacity, coordination and flexibility. (source)

Exercise Wisely and Safely

Most people, even if they have taken little exercise in recent years, should be safe to start moderate aerobic exercise like walking, as long as they are in good general health.

However, if you have any reservations, or any medical conditions, it’s best to check with your doctor first.

All you need to start walking for health and better sleep is good quality, comfortable footwear and some loose, comfortable clothes – no leotard required!

If time is at a premium for you, incorporate more walking into your daily routine – for example, walking to the shops, rather than driving.

It’s extremely important to warm your body up gradually when you begin to exercise – five minutes at a slow, relaxed pace should do it.

After your warm up, gradually increase the pace until you are walking at an increased speed that you are able to maintain. It’s OK to feel warm, but you shouldn’t be out of breath. Slow down your walking for the last five minutes as a cool down.

Aim to walk for a total of 45 minutes, but bear in mind that your current fitness level will dictate whether or not this is achievable for you to start with, or if you need to work up to it. Walking for 15 or 20 minutes two or three times a day is just as beneficial to health, so it’s fine if this suits you better.

If it’s a really long time since you did any exercise, it’s absolutely fine to start off with just five or 10 minutes a day and build up gradually each day.

Plan a route that you enjoy, preferably with some nice scenery to make your walk pleasurable. Trying to plan a circular route for your walk, rather than walking to a specific point and back again is preferable for some people, and varying your route is a good idea to make your walk more interesting.

In Summary

Insomnia can be caused by a huge number of factors, and affects different people in a number of ways. It can make it difficult for you to fall asleep when you go to bed, cause you to wake several times in the night, have restless and poor quality sleep or prevent you from sleeping for long enough.

However it affects you personally, it is always distressing, and makes everything else in life more difficult to cope with.

Sleep is important to reduce the risks of a number of different health conditions, and a long term problem with lack of sleep can have severe health consequences, as well as put us at increased risk of accidents.

Research has proven that exercise can help to improve the symptoms of all different kinds of insomnia, no matter how it affects an individual, and regardless of whether the insomnia is a long or short term problem.

So how can exercise help you sleep better? The main points regarding how to use exercise to help improve sleep are to try to exercise in the morning, and if necessary, at lunchtime in preference to evening exercise to gain the most significant improvement in sleep.

The type of exercise is also extremely important. An all-out, high intensity aerobic workout or a heavy weights session late in the evening isn’t likely to improve your sleep as much as a daily 45 minute brisk walk, or an hour of yoga first thing in the morning.

Exercise has also been shown to positively affect mood, and this can have a further positive impact on sleep and general health.

In particular, yoga has a huge range of health benefits in addition to improving sleep.

Walking is a great form of exercise, but remember to build up your walking time gradually, especially if you haven’t exercised for a while, and make sure you include a warmup and cool down period to allow your body to adjust to exercise and avoid muscle soreness.

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