Want Better Sleep? Try Working Out

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Nearly 70 million Americans are living with a sleep disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re one of them, consider your activity level. Engaging in little physical activity during the day can lead to less restful sleep at night.

“Exercise helps us sleep deeper and can improve sleep quality,” said Soda Kuczkowski, sleep health educator and certified sleep coach and founder and owner of Start with Sleep, LLC in Buffalo.

Exercising regularly helps mitigate the effects of stress, which can make a big difference in falling asleep and staying asleep. Exercise helps regulate stress hormones, the kind that may interfere with sleeping well. Whether aerobic exercise (jogging, spinning, tennis or any activity that sustains an elevated heart rate) or anaerobic exercise (lifting free weights, performing body weight exercises, using weight machines or doing isometric movements), exercise helps the body manage stress better.

Physical activity can also affect core body temperature. Although sleep experts recommend a cool environment to promote good sleep, exercise can affect body cooling as well, if timed right. Intense exercise can lower the body’s temperature about two hours afterwards. Kuczkowski recommends avoiding vigorous, high intensity exercise any closer to bedtime than two hours, as it can help people stay awake.

“Light stretches and yoga are encouraged as an alternative,” she said.

The meditative aspects of yoga can provide mental and emotional calm. Of course, hot yoga or Bikram yoga would represent exceptions, as these involve raising the body temperature by performing yoga in a very hot room. Stretching can help improve comfort and relaxation once in bed.

Misol Kwon, Ph.D. and registered nurse research project assistant and data analyist at UB, also advised timing exercise to end two to three hours before bedtime. However, exercising earlier in the day may be better for those struggling to sleep well.

“We want the body to wind down,” she said. “We don’t want to produce hormones that make us excited. It’s better to exercise in the morning when the sun is out. It helps the circadian rhythm to get in synch with the lights. It helps you have a good night’s sleep.”

The circadian rhythm refers to the body’s natural sleep/wake cycle, which in part receives cues from sunlight to awaken and darkness to feel ready to sleep. Exercising too close to bed may signal the body to induce wakefulness, which is ideal earlier in the day.

Light exercise such as walking the dog are likely just fine immediately before bed.

Anyone who experiences an ongoing lack of restful sleep should improve their sleep schedule by going to bed and rising at the same time every day and exercising earlier in the day. If the issue persists, they should seek help from a healthcare provider to rule out any other health issues and to obtain advice on what else to do to improve sleep. The provider can also recommend a sleep specialist if needed. Before beginning a new exercise regimen, ask a healthcare provider what is right for you.