Few things can make your life more miserable than consistently low-quality sleep.
Pretty much everything becomes more difficult after a sleepless night.
Things like memory, concentration, mood and sex drive are all majorly impacted by low sleep quality, and with insomnia on the rise, it’s small wonder why so many Americans are turning to prescription sleep medications to catch their much-needed ZZZ’s.
Unfortunately, though, these medications often come with side effects almost as bad as the insomnia they’re staving off – and it’s becoming increasingly clear that an alternative solution to the insomnia epidemic is an absolute must.
The good news is, your body has an answer.
The bad news?
That answer is exercise.
Active People Get Better Sleep
There’s a good bit of folk wisdom out there talking about the positive effects of exercise on sleep, but it’s only in recent years that science has finally begun to catch up.
An increasing number of studies have found an extraordinarily strong correlation between the amount of exercise people get each week and their amount of sleep.
One study found that people who practiced moderate to high levels of exercise each week had insomnia rates 56% lower than those who did not.
In general, the more active you are, the more sleep you’re going to get and the higher-quality that sleep is likely to be.
However, while these kinds of findings do sound promising when it comes to combating insomnia, it’s important to keep in mind that just because exercise and sleep are correlated, that doesn’t mean exercise is necessarily causing better sleep.
In fact, people who regularly get healthy levels of exercise throughout the week are also more likely to practice all kinds of other practices known to improve sleep quality.
They’re less likely, for instance, to rely heavily on drugs like tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine.
Additionally, healthier amounts of sleep typically result in more energy during the day, which makes people more likely to exercise.
So although it might seem obvious at first glance that exercise always leads to better sleep, the truth is a bit more complicated than that – and in fact, researchers are only just now starting to uncover the true relationship between these two activities…
How Exercise Fights Insomnia
Surprisingly few studies so far investigated the effects of exercise on insomniacs in particular.
However, the ones that are out there have come back with some pretty encouraging results.
In one 2010 study looking at 48 adult, female insomnia patients, introducing a regular exercise routine increased the amount of sleep they were getting across the board.
Following only a moderate exercise routine resulted in a 55% decrease in the amount of time it took the patients to get to sleep, as well as a 30% decrease in the amount of time they spent awake in the middle of the night.
The patients found themselves able to sleep for slightly longer, too – 18% more than the control group!
Additionally, another study of 43 older adults with moderate sleep complaints found that exercising three to four times a week decreased the amount of time it took participants to fall asleep by 11.5 minutes, and increased the total time spent asleep by 42 minutes.
These are some pretty substantial results, especially when you consider how sleep debt accumulates over time.
Across an entire week, for instance, those 42 extra minutes of shut-eye per night add up to almost 5 hours of extra sleep!
How Does It Work?
However, while these studies do provide us some pretty strong evidence of exercise’s abilities in combatting insomnia, exactly how this actually happens is a much more open question.
There are a couple competing theories…
#1: Exercise Helps Your Circadian Rhythm
One idea is that exercise helps your brain in sorting out its circadian rhythm.
You see, your sleep/wake cycle doesn’t operate in a vacuum.
Instead, it’s controlled by a sort of master clock in your brain’s pineal gland called the “suprachiasmatic nucleus.”
This little bundle of nerves is what controls the release of sleep-related hormones into your blood stream at certain times of the day, telling you when it’s time to wake up and time to go to bed.
The thing is, though, a whole bunch of other organs in your body – including your muscles – also rely on your brain’s master clock in one way or another.
Pretty much every part of your body goes through some kind of circadian rhythm each day, and all of these smaller rhythms interact with each other to help your master clock figure out what time of day it is and what it should be priming your body to do.
By exercising during the day, you help your body figure out when it should be powering down for the night!
#2: Exercise Makes You Less Stressed
Another theory focuses more on the psychological effects of exercise.
It pretty much boils down to this: there’s a whole bunch of research out there pointing to the effects of exercise on decreasing stress, anxiety and depression.
At the same time, there’s also a lot of evidence to suggest that stress, anxiety and depression are often major contributing factors to insomnia.
Therefore, by decreasing your stress, anxiety and depression symptoms through regular exercise, you can also decrease your symptoms of sleeplessness.
#3: Exercise Regulates Body Temperature
Finally, the last theory of how exercise contributes to better sleep involves its relationship with your body’s core temperature.
To understand how this works, we’re first going to need to understand exactly what goes on in your body as you’re powering down for sleep.
Although your body temperature averages 98.6º Fahrenheit during most of your waking hours, this actually varies somewhat based on what time we’re talking about.
Most people’s core temperature fluctuates by about a degree or two over the course of the day.
It’s at its highest sometime around late afternoon, but it starts to decline as you start getting towards bedtime, reaching its lowest point late in the night.
This decrease in temperature makes it much, much easier for you to get to sleep – and in fact, studies have shown that many insomniacs experience less substantial temperature reductions than their well-rested friends.
How does all this relate to exercise?
Well, although your body temperature does increase while you’re hitting the gym, a little while after you’re done working out your body literally goes into a bit of a “cool-down” period.
If you hit the hay during this sweet spot, the theory goes, you’ll find yourself quickly drifting off to sleep!
But Don’t Exercise Too Late in the Day!
Despite the positive impact of exercise on sleep, however, it’s not enough to just go work out whenever you feel like it and expect your nights to improve.
In fact, hitting the gym too late in the day can actually have a negative impact on sleep that outweighs the expected benefits.
Remember, it takes time for your body to finish cooling off after a good workout session.
Exercise increases heartrate, body temperature, and a bunch of other wakeful hormone levels in your blood – so if you’re pushing yourself too hard too soon before bedtime, you may find yourself tossing and turning when you lie down for sleep.
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to the best time of day to work out.
It’s typically best to just experiment with it and see what your body seems to like.
In general, you’ll probably want to be done with the gym at least an hour before you’re ready to nod off – but that’s just a basic guideline, and some people might not experience that much of a difference.
Outdoor Exercise May Be Most Effective
Finally, a word on the kinds of exercise likely to be most effective in improving your sleep.
Working out at a gym is great, if that’s the only place you feel comfortable or have access to.
For best results, however, outdoor exercise is really the best way to go.
Doing things outside allows your body to soak up some extra sunlight, which has been shown to streamline your circadian rhythm and promote the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone, when it comes time to go to sleep.
Your body is meant to be outside in the sun for pretty much the entire day – and while that’s obviously not possible for most people in the developed world, increasing the amount of time you spend out of doors can work wonders on your sleep health.
It basically just increases the contrast between day and night, making it all the easier for your brain to figure out what times you’re supposed to be up and what times you’re not.
Developing a healthy exercise routine is one of the most effective ways to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
Although adding in a bit of exercise throughout the week might sound like a pretty big commitment in terms of both time and energy, it’s important to keep in mind just how big a difference sleep can make on your life.
You put in the extra time to treat your body right, and it will pay you back with interest to spare!
So put away this article, and go change out of those clothes – it’s workout time!