If you’re not sleeping well, will exercise help?

does exercise help sleepEveryone will tell you that exercise helps sleep. It makes sense. You’ve experienced days when you really exerted yourself and collapsed in to bed and in to a deep sleep. But does that mean regular exercise can help with sleep on a day-to-day basis? It turns out there hasn’t been as much research on this question as you might think. Whilst there are small studies showing that exercise can help sleep, most of these are in specific groups such as older adults or people with disorders such as insomnia or Parkinson’s disease.

What’s the evidence that exercise helps sleep?

Exercise has been shown to shorten the time taken to get to sleep and reduce the amount of time spent awake during the night in people with chronic insomnia. Studies have shown a positive impact of exercise in young adults and adolescents, as well as in older adults and middle-aged women.

The 2013 National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America poll focused on sleep and exercise surveying 1000 U.S. adults aged 23 to 60 years. The results support findings in the scientific literature. Despite similar sleep habits, respondents who exercised were more likely to report a good night’s sleep. People who didn’t exercise were also significantly more likely to report being in poor health. This needs to be interpreted with caution as it may be that these people were not able to exercise because of their poor health which also impacted on sleep, rather than a lack of exercise causing poor sleep.

There are also papers looking at the effects of exercise on adults with health problems such as Parkinson’s disease, cancer, fatigue and depression.  These papers have shown improvements in sleep quality with even very modest physical activity.

What sort of exercise should I do?

There is not a lot of data to help answer this question. However, a number of smaller studies that have tried to answer this question suggest that moderate intensity aerobic exercise is better for sleep than high-intensity aerobic exercise or moderate-intensity resistance training. One study showed moderate-intensity aerobic exercise reduced pre-sleep anxiety and improved sleep in patients with chronic insomnia.

A lot of people I see have been doing high intensity aerobic exercise hoping to tire themselves out and get to sleep. That approach doesn’t work, and can actually make it harder to switch off and sleep. Elite athletes are an example of this. They exercise at high intensity for long periods most days, but have trouble switching off and sleeping at night. A recent meta-analysis showed that elite athletes have high rates of insomnia and sleep difficulties.

When should I exercise?

There is also surprisingly little data to help answer this question.

Is evening exercise all that bad for sleep? Although sleep hygiene recommendations advise against evening exercise there is not a lot of data on this topic. A recent study in the journal Sleep Medicine looked at sleep and timing of exercise in 1000 people and showed:

1. Any exercise was associated with improved sleep
2. Morning exercisers were most likely to report good sleep quality
3. Evening exercise did not result in disturbed or shorter sleep

From a sleep point of view, some exercise is good, more is not necessarily better and evening exercise may not be as bad for sleep as previously thought. So if the only time you have to exercise is in the evening, go for it. Don’t get too caught up on when in the day exercise should be.

Set your alarm early to go to the gym? Think again.

Both sleep and exercise are important for maintaining physical and mental health.  However, often people prioritise one over the other which leads to sacrificing sleep for exercise.  What is the right balance and how do you make sure that you don’t overly focus on one of these to the detriment of the other and impact your health and wellbeing?

sleep a priorityAnna Almendrala wrote a great post in The Huffington Post discussing current research on sleep vs exercise. I agree with her summary of the current state of the literature.  There are certainly lots of individual studies on sleep or exercise showing the benefits for health with either more sleep or more exercise and detriments to health when we miss out on either sleep or exercise.  However, there is not good data showing what happens when we trade one off for the other. Like all things it makes sense to keep things in balance.  Ensuring reasonable amounts of sleep as well as reasonable amounts of physical activity rather than overly prioritising either of these.

If you can fit exercise into your morning routine without having to wake up extra early and sacrifice sleep then this is a great way to start your day. But, if exercising in the morning means you would have to set the alarm much earlier than your natural waking time, you may be better exercising in the middle or end of the day

Exercise can help reduce fatigue

Although many people think of exercise as something they do to try to help with sleep at night, there is good research showing that physical activity helps reduce symptoms of tiredness and fatigue. So, if you’re not sleeping well, exercise can reduce the impact of poor sleep. Exercise has also been shown to reduce symptoms of tiredness and fatigue in conditions such as depression, pain, fibromyalgia and fatigue syndromes.

For an in-depth discussion on exercise for fatigue, see this post on behavioural activation.

What should I do?

If you’re not sleeping well, exercise can help both to improve sleep and reduce the impact of poor sleep on how you feel. So, making physical activity part of your day is a great strategy. It doesn’t need to be high-intensity exercise, as research shows that the best exercise for sleep is moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. It also doesn’t need to be in the morning, so if later in the day is the only time you can fit exercise in to your day it’s better then than not exercising at all.

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