Exercise and sleep | The best way to exercise for better sleep

Exercise can have a positive impact on our sleep. Physical activity has proven benefits for improving sleep quantity and quality, giving you even more reason to maintain a regular workout routine. Find out more about the relationship between exercise and sleep and how getting active can help you find a good night’s sleep.

How exercise helps with sleep

When we struggle with our sleep, it’s natural to search far and wide for a solution.

Fortunately, one of the most effective ways to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep is to introduce regular exercise into your routine.

Whilst research indicates that our sleep does improve with regular physical exercise, experts still don’t quite understand why. It’s thought that a combination of a rising and falling body temperature, and the release of feel-good endorphins are at least partly responsible.

How much sleep do I need?

We’ve all heard stories of people who can apparently function at a high level on very little sleep. Whilst it’s true that some people can get by on less than others, it’s advised you try and at least match the recommended daily amount of sleep for your age.

  • 0 - 3 months: 14 to 17 hours, including naps
  • 4 - 12 months: 12 to 16 hours, including naps
  • 1 - 2 years: 11 to 14 hours, including naps
  • 3 - 5 years: 10 to 13 hours, including naps
  • 6 - 13 years: 9 to 12 hours
  • 14 - 17 years: 8 to 10 hours
  • 18 years and over: 7 hours or more

The relationship between exercise and sleep

Exercise can help us sleep, but we need to stick to a few rules. This is because the way we engage with physical activity matters due to the way our mind and body interact with each other. 

Just because there is a positive relationship between the two, doesn’t mean exercising intensely right before we go to bed is going to help.

Keep reading to find out the best way to introduce exercise into your routine for maximum sleep-related benefits.

How long should I be exercising for?

Whether you’re walking, jogging, cross-training, or weightlifting, the amount of time you spend exercising can have an impact on your sleep. 

It’s widely understood that performing around half an hour of exercise a day is usually enough to help you drift off in the evening. That doesn’t mean that more exercise is necessarily damaging your relationship with sleep.

If you exercise for long periods regularly already, consider focusing more on timing. It’s important we remember that intensity and scheduling can be equally as important as duration.

Timing and why it’s so important

Because exercise can cause a spike in adrenaline, you should end any strenuous exercise around five to six hours before going to bed to aid sleep.

Ever got into bed right after a long run and a shower? Adrenaline keeps your body in an alert state, making it harder to drift off at the end of the day. In line with this advice, waking up early to go to the gym could deprive you of vital sleeping hours.

The key is to find space for exercise at a time that works for you. Schedule your workout for a time that you can commit to over time and bear in mind the effects your choice may have on your sleep routine.

Prioritise moderate intensity

If you struggle with sleep, lowering the amount of intense exercise you do could actually help.

Whilst not conclusive, some studies into the effect of exercise on those who suffer from chronic insomnia have shown interesting results. These studies indicate that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise like walking or swimming can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and increase the length of sleep, compared to no exercise.

Vigorous aerobic exercises like running or lifting weights had no effect on sleep quality or quantity.

If better quality sleep is your goal, consider incorporating moderate-intensity exercise and save the intense sessions for the weekend.

What exercises are most beneficial?

If you’re not into running or the gym, there are plenty of other things you can do to calm your body and mind before bed.

  • Yoga: the unique poses and breathing cycles involved are great for calming the mind and body in the evening before bed
  • Stretching: incorporate resistance bands and develop a selection of favourites for best results
  • Walking: walking is a great low-impact exercise that can be adapted for different ages and abilities
  • Weightlifting: you don’t have to bench and squat heavy in the gym to reap the rewards of lifting weights
  • Resistance exercises: resistance bands are a great way of gently working your muscles at home
  • Swimming: research indicates a direct positive correlation between swimming and sleep

What’s the best time of day to exercise?

This really depends on how you feel as there is no “best” time to exercise.

Exercising outside early in the day has been shown to shift and improve circadian rhythm due to light exposure too and will help with sleep later in the day. Emphasis on exercising outdoors though. If you’re comfortable exercising first thing in the morning that’s great, but don’t feel compelled to be an early bird if you’re not. 

Research shows that there can be vast differences in human circadian rhythms, demonstrated by the prevalence of so called “night owls” and “morning people”.

It’s no good forcing exercise in and creating a routine that doesn’t work for you. The best course of action for marrying exercise with your sleep schedule is to consider the advice above and tailor it to your unique schedule.

Sleep syncing and exercise

Sleep syncing refers to the practice of going against the standardised “day/night” circadian rhythm and constructing a sleep schedule that works best for you and your body.

This might mean you take a nap on your lunch break, or you get two hours of shuteye straight after work. Sleep syncing is a modern practice that is gaining popularity. 

It gives power to the individual to do what works for them and encourages the exploration of flexible sleep patterns that can be tweaked and adjusted where required. 

Sleep syncing works great with exercise because it allows you to form a workout schedule that’s more tailored to your unique lifestyle. If taking a nap right after a run feels best for you, go right ahead.

The other health benefits of regular exercise

Exercise doesn’t just help with sleep. See below to find out what regular exercise can do for your body and mind:

  • Maximise bone density
  • Build muscle mass
  • Alleviate joint pain
  • Weight management
  • Improved mental health
  • Reduced risk of chronic health conditions
  • More flexibility
  • Raised energy levels
  • Lower blood pressure over time

Last updated Monday 11 December 2023

First published on Friday 25 November 2016