Sleep and exercise go hand-in-hand. A good night of sleep can help you crush your workout the next day, and that good workout can, in turn, help you drift off and sleep better the next night. Sounds pretty ideal. But it can also go the other way, with research showing that a poor night of sleep has an adverse effect on your workouts (and a whole lot of other things).
"It's not whether exercise is good or bad for your sleep," said Rafael Pelayo, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center. "I think everybody would agree that exercising is good for you. With sleep, it's more about the timing of the exercise." That is, exercise can help you sleep better, but it depends on when during the day you're getting your workout in. Some timeframes can improve your sleep; others, potentially, could do the opposite.
Exercise at Least 3 Hours Before Bed For the Best Sleep
The big debate is how working out right before bed can affect your sleep, Dr. Pelayo told POPSUGAR. Traditionally, the thinking was that "if you exercise close to bedtime, your body heats up and you get an adrenaline rush," he explained. "It's hard to go to sleep right away because you're energized from the exercise." Think about how you feel after a big workout: your body and your muscles might be tired, but you won't be sleepy, and there's a big difference between the two.
But sleep disruption from evening exercise might not be as universal as we thought. According to a 2018 study in Sports Medicine, it might actually be the opposite: evening exercise can help some people fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply throughout the night. However, the same study also showed that completing a vigorous workout (think high-intensity interval training or a fast run) less than an hour before bed could make it harder to fall asleep and get into that deep sleep zone.
The ideal buffer between exercise and bedtime seems to be about three hours, Dr. Pelayo said. So if exercising at night is the only option for you, shooting for the early evening is probably the best choice, especially if you're doing more intense workouts.
Morning workouts are a good choice as well, Dr. Pelayo told POPSUGAR, and early afternoon might be even better, though it typically isn't feasible if you're working a full-time job. Your body temperature naturally drops in the afternoon, Dr. Pelayo explained, leading to a period of post-lunch grogginess you're probably familiar with. "If you can do something physical, where you're moving around away from your desk, on your feet — that would be a good time to do that," he told POPSUGAR. It could be a full workout or just a brisk walk. Any kind of movement will help you wake up, allowing you to "save up" the drive for sleep until you're ready for bed that night, Dr. Pelayo explained.
What Kind of Exercise Is Best For Sleep?
There's no definitive answer as to what kind of exercise helps the most with sleep quality; research suggests that there are benefits from both cardio and resistance work. Again, the timing of the exercise is crucial. Cardio exercise "gets your heart rate up more, by definition," Dr. Pelayo said, increasing your heart rate, body temperature, and adrenaline and making it hard to fall asleep if done close enough to bedtime. "Cooling your body facilitates sleep," Dr. Pelayo explained. (His somewhat morbid way to remember that: "people fall asleep before they freeze to death!") On the other hand, many of us have experienced how difficult it can be to sleep on a hot night.
Yoga and stretching, on the other hand, should be fine before bed, Dr. Pelayo said, because they aren't heart-pumping aerobic exercise. That means you should go for more relaxing flows (like this bedtime yoga sequence) and save the power or strengthening flows for another time.
If you have no choice but to do your hard workouts an hour before bed, take some time to calm down afterward. Dr. Pelayo recommended trying meditation or calming stretches, anything that relaxes your body, lowers your heart rate, and helps you look forward to going to sleep.