How Exercise
Improves Sleep

We already know that regular exercise is important to maintain a healthy body. But consistently getting those steps and reps can do more than you ever imagined, both day and night. The benefits of adding exercise to your regular routine are extensive—and include getting a sounder, more restful sleep.

According to Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital, it may never be clear how physical activity improves sleep, and researchers may never “be able to pinpoint the mechanism that explains how the two are related.” Regardless of scientific explanation, though, there are large bodies of evidence that support the correlation.

Let’s take a deeper dive to learn how getting in a workout can change your sleep game.

Time/Quality

The first key benefit related to exercise and sleep lies in the duration of your nightly zzzs. Physical activity requires energy, making you feel more tired and ready to rest come bedtime. Boosting your exercise can increase the time spent in deep slumber—the most restorative phase of the sleep cycle. Deep sleep helps boost immune function and supports cardiac health, which can improve the quality of your sleep and your ability to rejuvenate. Researchers say participants in a sleep study who exercised reported that their sleep quality was vastly improved, raising their benchmark diagnosis from a poor to a good rating of sleep.

Stress

A second key benefit in a consistent exercise routine is the reduction of stress levels. Exercise can help stabilize your mood and decompress the mind—”a cognitive process that is important for naturally transitioning to sleep,” says Gamaldo. Stress is a common cause of sleep problems, like falling asleep and sleeping restlessly.

Exercise can also remedy other mood disorders—just five minutes of exercise can trigger anti-anxiety responses in the body. Workouts like yoga can help quiet the parasympathetic nervous system, helping you to relax, lower cortisol levels and reduce blood pressure, as well as having positive effects on mood. Some people can even have fewer depressive symptoms, more liveliness and less sleepiness in the daytime.

Disorders

Exercise can also be a key factor in specific sleep conditions, even ones that already exist. "There has been more and more research in the last decade showing exercise can reduce insomnia," Rush University clinical psychologist Kelly Glazer Baron said. "In one study we did, for example, older women suffering from insomnia said their sleep improved from poor to good when they exercised. They had more energy and were less depressed." Exercise can also reduce the risk of developing troublesome sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.

How To Do It

So now you might be wondering, how much exercise do I need to get? One expert says as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercises, such as walking or cycling, can dramatically improve the quality of your nighttime sleep. Yet most sleep studies recommend 2.5 hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise to truly round out your routine.

As for what type, getting your heart rate up and getting moving is all that matters. Find something you enjoy and stick to it! As for what time of day? Gamaldo says “There’s still some debate about what time of day you should exercise. I encourage people to listen to their bodies to see how well they sleep in response to when they work out."

Want to make the deal even better? Try taking your workout to the outdoors. Bright light can help promote sleep, and light exposure helps regulate the body clock.

Convincing yourself to get moving instead of binge watching that tenth episode isn’t always an easy task. Kathryn Reid, Ph.D., of the Department of Neurobiology and Physiology at Northwestern University says it best: “Better sleep gives you that pep, that magical ingredient that makes you want to get up and get out into the world to do things.”