According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a third of adults 18-60 years of age aren’t getting enough sleep, meaning that they’re sleeping for less than seven hours per night. While work schedules, caffeine and jet lag are common culprits behind sleeplessness, other factors like stress, anxiety and sleep disorders also interfere with healthy sleep.
Unfortunately, missing out on shut-eye is associated with a whole host of problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, not to mention the grogginess that follows a short night’s sleep. For many people, physical activity and sleep are closely associated, and incorporating moderate exercise in your day could be the key to a restorative night.
How Physical Activity and Sleep Are Connected
While scientists and researchers have plenty of data to show that physical activity can make a big difference in sleep quality, they’re not entirely sure why. According to Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital, we may never know exactly why amped up physical activity and better sleep tend to go hand-in-hand.
However, researchers do know that moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow-wave sleep that you get. This is the third phase of sleep and is the deepest stage of non-REM sleep. During this time, the brain and body rejuvenate and information that you gathered throughout the day is stored. Exercise plays a role in stabilizing your mood and helping your mind process information, which is believed to be an important step in winding down at the end of the day and preparing for sleep.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take months or even weeks to see improvements in sleep from adopting an exercise routine. In fact, many people who begin engaging in moderate exercise for at least half an hour a day may notice a difference in their sleep quality the very first night.
The Best Exercises for Healthy Sleep
While vigorous physical activity is beneficial for a variety of reasons, you don’t have to sweat too hard to enjoy better sleep. Moderate exercise alone can increase your heart rate and blood flow enough to improve your nightly rest. The key is to pick an activity that you enjoy, which should make it easier for it to become a part of your daily routine. Some examples of moderate exercises that are beneficial for sleep include:
- Brisk walking
- Using an elliptical trainer
- Water aerobics
- Bicycling or using a stationary bike
- Yard work
- Playing sports such as tennis and baseball
- Easy jogging
When to Exercise
Gamaldo notes that several studies have provided solid evidence connecting physical activity to sleep. However, the right time of day to exercise is still up for debate. While you should listen to your own body to determine the best time to exercise, many people prefer early morning workouts based on the following physical effects.
First, moderate aerobic exercise like brisk walking, light jogging and bicycling raises your body’s core temperature. This temperature increase is a cue to your brain that it’s time to be alert and productive. Experiencing this spurt of energy late at night may keep you from falling asleep right away.
Second, aerobic exercise causes the body to release endorphins. These so-called “happy hormones” can bring feelings of general well-being and even euphoria. While this is a great mood-booster during the day, it can make it difficult to wind down.
While moderate physical activity close to bedtime doesn’t always cause difficulty falling asleep, it can worsen insomnia in some people. For those who can’t work out early in the day, exercising two hours or more before bedtime should give the body plenty of time to cool down and prepare for sleep.
Incorporating Daily Physical Activity
Physical activity is anything that elevates your heart rate and causes your body to expend energy. When you think of physical activity, you may picture activities like jogging on a treadmill or joining an exercise class at your local gym.
While those are great options, everyday activities like briskly walking your dog, mowing the lawn, and weeding flowerbeds are also great ways to add movement to your day. Just make sure you’re using continuous effort and that your heart is beating faster than normal.
To enjoy the benefits of exercise, including a better night’s sleep, the American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes per day, five days per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity.
Before beginning a new exercise program, it’s important to talk to your doctor, particularly if you have concerns about your heart health or if you have a respiratory condition like asthma. Your doctor can tell you what symptoms to pay attention to as you begin your exercise regime and give you pointers on what types of physical activities may be a good fit for your goals.
While there are many possible causes for sleep difficulty, and no one-size-fits-all solution guarantees that you’ll fall asleep more quickly and wake up refreshed, physical activity can have a positive impact on sleep quality. Regardless of your fitness level, there are many types of exercise you can easily incorporate into your daily routine. Whether that’s a 30-minute post-dinner walk, a play session with your dog or completing a few weekly errands on foot, making an effort to increase your activity level can improve your chances of restful sleep.