ADVICE

Can exercise help you sleep better?

Reviewed by our expert panel
Woman asleep in bed

A good night’s sleep can sometimes feel like an impossible achievement. But if physical activity can tire children for bed, then maybe it works for adults, too. Nutritionist and exercise physiologist Kathleen Alleaume looks at how exercise affects your sleep.

Sleep may be a simple need but getting it right can be complicated, with a recent survey by the Australian Sleep Health Foundation revealing one in three regularly struggle with their slumber. A number of factors contribute to poor sleep, including stress, anxiety and too much screen time before bedtime. It’s no secret that regular physical activity is good for both body and mind, but did you know it can also encourage better sleep habits?

Exercise and deep sleep

When you sleep, you experience different cycles or phases. The slow-wave or ‘deep sleep’ phase is the most physically restorative phase. Regular physical activity has been shown to increase the time spent in this deep, slow-wave phase, improving your overall quality of sleep. As a result, you wake up feeling refreshed and restored.

Exercise and stress relief

If you’re lying in bed consumed with thoughts, then you’re not winning on the sleep front. Stress and anxiety are among sleep’s worst enemies and are frequently connected to insomnia and other sleep disorders. The good news is that undertaking regular exercise is a potent remedy for anxiety. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, those ‘feel-good’ chemicals’ that interact with receptors in your brain to help ward off anxiety and feelings of depression. Moving your body also helps to decrease muscle tension, a physical symptom of anxiety.

Get moving

All types of physical activity can set you up for solid slumber, including aerobic (cardio) activity and resistance training. Current guidelines recommend 150 to 300 minutes of ‘moderate-intensity’ physical activity a week, or 75 to 150 minutes of ‘vigorous’ physical activity a week. This could be a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day, five days a week; a high-intensity 45-minute spin class one day a week, plus a half-hour jog another day of the week; or some other combination of moderate and vigorous activity throughout the week.

One way to determine moderate-intensity activity is by exercising at a pace where you can comfortably talk but not sing. Examples include brisk walking, dancing and digging in the garden. Vigorous-intensity activity, such as running, requires more effort so you breathe harder and faster, making it difficult to talk. Guidelines also recommend at least two sessions of muscle strengthening exercises a week. This could be lifting weights or doing push-ups, sit-ups, lunges and squats.

When to exercise

The best time of day for exercise depends on the individual, so find a time that suits your schedule. And remember, making exercise a regular habit is more important than the time of day you choose to do it, so try to find an exercise that works for you.

Studies do reveal, however, that joint flexibility, reaction time, muscle strength and power reach their highest ‘circadian’ peak in the late afternoon, due to the natural rise in core body temperature at this time of day. On the flip side, research shows that performing high-intensity, strenuous exercise an hour before bedtime may make it harder to fall asleep. Your body temperature naturally lowers in the evening, signalling to your brain it’s time for rest. Strenuous exercise at this time raises core body temperature, which is the opposite to what happens before sleep.

Make working out work for you

According to the latest ABS survey, just under 60 per cent of adults do less than the recommended 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a day. So, consider your lifestyle and habits when deciding what works best for you.

If you’re an early bird

The best thing about morning exercise is you’re done for the day and other distractions can’t get in the way. A recent study revealed people who exercise in the morning are more consistent, compared with those who exercise at other times of the day. The same study showed morning exercisers burned a greater proportion of stored body fat, which is ideal for weight loss. If you suffer from sleep apnea (breathing difficulties during sleep), losing weight can also help improve this condition.

Another benefit of getting up early in the morning to exercise is that the energy you create will sustain you throughout the day, improving your concentration and mental alertness.

HFG tip

Lay out your exercise clothes the night before, keep your workout close to home and, just like your coffee, it’ll soon become an entrenched part of your morning routine.

If you’re a night owl

If you struggle to get up for early morning workouts, then end your day on an endorphin high. Afternoon or early evening exercise can be a great way to de-stress after a long day. Also, your body temperature is at its peak, which is linked to improved physical performance.

HFG tip

Schedule a workout in the afternoon or early evening and treat it like a meeting or appointment — not to be missed. Going for an after-dinner walk around the block with the kids or your partner is another great way to unwind.

If you’re spontaneous

If your days vary and being tied to a schedule is not your thing, then squeeze a bout of fitness in whenever you can, even if it’s just for short periods of time throughout the day. Ten minutes here and 15 minutes there soon add up. Whether it’s during your lunch break or between school pick-ups, make exercise work for you and it’ll work for your quality of sleep, too.

HFG tip

Keep a pair of joggers in the car or under your work desk so you can pop out for a quick lunchtime walk. Park a little further from the supermarket so you have to walk further.

The bottom line

If you want better sleep, make regular exercise a habit. Remember, a workout any time of day is better than no exercise at all. Regular physical activity can help you fall asleep faster, improve sleep quality and provide other benefits such as improved mental and overall health.

Get up and go

Try these four tips to beat the snooze button:

  1. Sleep with the blinds or curtains in your bedroom open so early morning light spills in.
  2. Have your gym clothes laid out beside your bed, ready to put on.
  3. Only allow yourself one press of the snooze button, and make it last five minutes max!
  4. Exercise with a fitness buddy as this will keep you accountable.

4 sleep saboteurs

Want a better night’s rest? Here are four things to avoid:

  1. Heavy meals two hours before bedtime
  2. Alcoholic drinks
  3. Caffeine late in the afternoon
  4. Using screens too close to bedtime.
First published: Jan 2022

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