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Timing exercise right: How exercise affects sleep

Having a hard time getting your Zs? You may want to revisit your workout routine. The timing of exercise can affect your sleep patterns, so make sure you time your exercise right.

woman doing yoga

Improve your sleep with exercise

Studies from research powerhouses — like Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine — indicate that regular exercise leads to better sleep. Individuals who engage in consistent cardio programs are more likely to sleep longer, sleep more soundly and feel more awake during the day. Plus, for middle-aged and older adults who battle chronic insomnia, exercise appears to be a drug-free alternative to better sleep.

That’s pretty great, right? There’s just one thing you should consider: Timing.

Avoid strenuous exercise too close to bedtime

Exercise requires full-body engagement from your muscles to your mind. Even moderate-intensity exercise boosts blood flow, increases metabolism and leads to a steady rise in body temperature. While these effects are beneficial for energy, weight management and overall health, a flood of exercise-induced energy too close to bedtime can interfere with your ability to sleep.

According to Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, as the body prepares for rest, body temperature and blood pressure start to decrease. These two factors are intimately connected to Circadian rhythms, and as they fall, you become more tired. See the problem? Because exercise increases cardiovascular output and body temperature, if you exercise too close to bedtime, you won’t experience the natural declines that signal your body that it’s time to sleep.

Most experts suggest leaving at least three hours between your fitness routine and bedtime, but Discovery Health suggests leaving a five to six hour window. This way, your body’s temperature will have returned to normal post-exercise at roughly the same time that its temperature begins to decline in preparation for sleep.

Best time to workout

So when’s the best time to workout for sleep? That’s a loaded question. The simple answer is “when you’ll do it,” but that may not be the best response for nighttime exercisers. For individuals who naturally prefer morning or afternoon workouts, you can feel confident that your routine is benefitting your sleep cycle. For individuals who tend to hit the gym after work, it gets a little trickier. Chances are you don’t have the luxury of exercising whenever you want — you have to make dinner, help with homework and attend school events. Rather than simply fitting in your workout whenever you get a chance, start by choosing the hour when you’d like to fall asleep and work your way backward. If your bedtime is 10:00 p.m., aim to get your workout done by 7:00 p.m. If you have the luxury of a midnight bedtime, give yourself a few more hours to squeeze in your workout. By allowing at least three hours between exercise and bedtime, you’ll be more likely to experience a restful night’s sleep.

More on sleep and health

The importance of sleep
5 Simple ways to improve your sleep cycle
Sleep positions and health: What you should know

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