How daily exercise promotes healthy sleep

Healthy bedtime routines — drinking herbal tea, drawing a soothing bath, putting down the phone — are crucial to getting a good night of sleep. But the choices we make throughout the day, from the moment we first greet the morning, probably have a much bigger impact on the quality of our shuteye than we realize. Apple or cookie? Stairs or elevator? After-dinner walk or Netflix? Establishing a healthy routine through good nutrition and exercise can have a tremendous effect on how we sleep at night, with benefits that start early and last into the wee hours.

Deciding how and when to exercise is one of the most important daily choices we make. Karla Kubitz, associate professor at Towson University, conducted a meta-analysis of a decade of sleep and exercise studies and found that physical activity significantly increases both total sleep time and the time spent in NREM sleep (the deep, dreamless sleep that makes up about 80% of sleep).  

Why such a strong link between exercise and sleep?

  • Exercising raises our core body temperature. The subsequent lowering that occurs a few hours later can trigger sleepiness.
  • In climates and times of year when we can exercise outdoors during daylight hours, more time moving outside helps reset the sleep cycle by absorbing natural sunlight and making us more attuned to our circadian rhythms.
  • According to Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital, regular exercise galvanizes the brain and body for more efficient sleeping — so even if the time spent asleep rises only incrementally, the quality of sleep after exercise is better.
  • Exercise also helps with mood stabilization, an important component of the transition between waking hours and those spent sleeping.
  • The better we sleep, the more energy we have during the day to exercise, thus cementing the reciprocal relationship between sleep and exercise.

Find relief from sleep disorders through exercise

While healthy sleepers can realize gains from a regular exercise routine, those who suffer from sleep disorders may discover even greater benefits. Insomnia is often caused by elevated amounts of arousal, anxiety and depression at night. Exercise can help lower all these levels, thereby improving sleep quality. Dr. Gamaldo notes a study in which participants with insomnia took up an exercise routine for 50 minutes a day three times a week and found a significant improvement in sleep quality.

According to a 2020 study from the Journal of American Medicine, exercise is one of the treatments for Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). People who suffer from OSA experience fragmented sleep and daytime sleepiness. Because obesity often underlies OSA, a healthy exercise and weight loss routine can assist in combating OSA’s deleterious effects. Those who suffer from Restless Leg Syndrome, a sleep disorder characterized by the overwhelming urge to move one’s legs, which often worsens at night and can dramatically and negatively affect sleep, may also find relief through gentle exercising (though researchers at the Mayo Clinic caution that exercising too vigorously or too late in the day could have the opposite effect).

Establishing healthy exercise habits is a marathon, not a sprint — but you don’t have to run either to see the benefits   

Consider these four tips if you’re looking to improve your sleep through exercise.

  1. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to go from zero to 60 as you ease into an exercise routine. According to the National Sleep Foundation, as little as 10 minutes of exercise per day can have a positive effect on sleep. Many different types of exercise, including brisk walking and yoga, can deliver benefits. Once you’re comfortable with a little bit of exercise, you can build on that. All in good time.
  • Do experiment to find the optimal time of day for exercise, taking into account work and home routines as well as how your body responds to moving more. Many people have trouble falling asleep in the hour or two after performing vigorous exercise and should plan those sessions for earlier in the day. Some people are unaffected by the time of exercise.
  • Do keep a chart over several days, weeks or months to track your exercise and subsequent sleep. Note what time of day you exercised, and how, and the quality of your sleep that night. This will help you build a healthy routine that works best for you.
  • Don’t skimp on your nutritional intake. A focus on a healthy diet — low in processed sugars and alcohol and high in whole foods including fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins — will assist you in maintaining an exercise routine by delivering more energy. Those nutritional benefits will continue when you stop moving and settle in to enjoy those well-earned ZZZs.