July 27, 2023

Sleep & Sweat: When to Exercise for Better Sleep

Tossing and turning all night? If you’re struggling with insomnia, you’re not alone. While exercise can hold the promise of improved sleep, the time you choose to move might be the real game-changer. We are about to dive into the fascinating science of sleep and sweat, learn how to optimize your routine and choose the best times to hit the gym.

The Link Between Exercise and Sleep:

Everyone knows that exercise boasts a number of health benefits, and improved sleep ranks high among them. Studies have shown that regular physical activity can enhance sleep quality, reduce sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep), and promote overall sleep satisfaction.  But the real game-changer? Recent research shows that exercise timing plays a pivotal role in maximizing these sleep-enhancing effects.

Insomnia Research Insights:

Insomnia, a common sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, has been studied extensively. . Recently, a group of Japanese researchers examined the effects of morning and evening exercise on sleep parameters in individuals with insomnia. The findings revealed intriguing differences based on exercise timing.

  1. Morning exercise enhances sleep by boosting the parasympathetic nervous system
  2. Exercise in the evening can disrupt sleeping patterns, affecting melatonin release, body temperature, and heart rate, making it harder to relax and sleep.

A Deeper Dive into the Science:

Understanding the Parasympathetic Nervous System’s Role in Sleep:

Participants who engaged in morning exercise experienced improvements in sleep at night. Notably, morning exercise was found to increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and restfulness. By incorporating exercise into your morning routine, you can potentially enhance your sleep quality, even if you struggle with insomnia.

If you want to improve your sleep quality, you should understand the role of the parasympathetic nervous system – often termed the “rest and digest” system. Here’s why it matters:

Induction of Calm: This system acts as the body’s natural calming agent, slowing the heart rate and reducing overall arousal levels, laying the foundation for a restful night.

Stress Management: Chronic stress is a known sleep disruptor. The parasympathetic response directly counteracts stress-induced responses, helping with relaxation and ease of mind.

Muscular Relaxation: Sleep requires physical unwinding. The parasympathetic system facilitates muscle relaxation, which is essential for transitioning into deep sleep stages.

Optimal Digestion: A well-regulated digestive system, courtesy of our parasympathetic system, ensures that digestive processes don’t interfere with sleep initiation or duration.

Synchronization of Body Processes: As a sleep coach, I often emphasize the need for rhythmic bodily functions for quality sleep. The parasympathetic system helps stabilize these processes, setting the stage for uninterrupted slumber.

To optimize sleep, it’s not just about habits and environment; it’s also about understanding and working with our body’s innate systems. The parasympathetic nervous system plays a key role in this, warranting attention in any sleep improvement strategy.

Evening Exercise and Sleep: A Closer Look

In contrast, evening exercise was found to disrupt sleep physiology. Evening exercise shifts the timing of melatonin rise during the night, suppresses the natural decline of core body temperature that aids sleep onset, and causes an increased heart rate during sleep. These findings suggest that exercising too close to bedtime may keep sympathetic activity heightened, hindering the ability to wind down and relax.

Here’s why it matters:

Body Temperature Regulation: Our body starts to cool down naturally as bedtime approaches, preparing us for rest. Evening workouts can elevate body temperature, potentially making it harder to fall asleep.

Sympathetic Activation: Vigorous exercise stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. This heightened state can be counterproductive when we’re trying to enter a state of rest.

Melatonin Release: Melatonin, often referred to as the “sleep hormone,” regulates our sleep-wake cycle. Intense evening activity can delay its release, pushing back our body’s natural sleep timing.

Endorphin Levels: While the release of endorphins post-exercise can elevate mood, it can also lead to increased alertness – not ideal when preparing for sleep.

Sleep Cycles: Normal sleep cycle stages can be affected by late-night workouts. This can result in reduced deep sleep, vital for recovery and rejuvenation.

Post-Exercise Nutrition: Evening exercise might lead to late-night eating. Eating meals close to bedtime can interfere with sleep, especially if the meal is large or rich in certain macronutrients.

So, while evening exercise might suit some individuals, it’s a good idea to monitor its impact on your sleep quality. If you’re experiencing sleep disturbances, consider adjusting your workout timing and noting any changes. Always prioritize a balance that promotes both physical activity and restful sleep.

Optimizing Your Exercise Routine for Better Sleep:

Based on these insights, it’s clear that timing matters regarding exercise and sleep. To optimize your exercise routine and improve sleep quality, consider the following tips:

Morning Exercise Routine: Incorporate moderate-intensity exercise into your morning routine. This can involve activities like jogging, yoga, or cycling. By doing so, you can stimulate parasympathetic activity, promoting relaxation and preparing your body for restful sleep later in the evening.

Avoid High-Intensity Evening Workouts: If you prefer evening exercise, opt for low-intensity activities such as gentle stretching or a relaxing walk. High-intensity workouts before bed can disrupt sleep by increasing sympathetic activity. Allow ample time for your body to wind down before hitting the pillow.

Transitioning Post Exercise: After an evening workout, your body requires a buffer period. It’s not merely about physical recovery; it’s about creating a conducive environment for sleep. This might involve calming activities that temper your heart rate and initiate relaxation. 

Consistency is Key: The circadian rhythm, our internal body clock, thrives on consistency. Establishing a consistent exercise schedule helps regulate your body’s internal clock, optimizing your sleep-wake cycle. Stick to your chosen exercise timing and make it a habit.

If you’re struggling with chronic insomnia, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI) can be an effective treatment option. CBTI, a therapeutic approach that addresses the underlying causes and thoughts of insomnia, is considered the best first-line treatment for chronic sleep problems. When combined with an exercise routine that’s enjoyable and well-timed to suit your circadian rhythm,  CBTI can provide comprehensive support for improving sleep quality and overall well-being.

Contact us to learn more about how sleep coaching can help you get a better nights sleep.

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