There are countless reasons why Americans are not getting enough sleep. From the bright city lights to the constant stresses and pressures of daily life, getting the required 7-9 hours of sleep every night can feel like an impossible dream for many.
But although those nightly zzz’s might be proving elusive for so many people throughout the US, it is essential to get a good nights’ rest.
Why is sleep so important?
While sleep was once viewed as an inconvenient requirement for the body and mind to physically rest, it has now been shown that we use sleep for far more than taking a load off.
Studies have shown that our bodies are working hard to recuperate and perform essential functions while we sleep. Antibodies are produced, our immune systems are strengthened, and the body’s glucose production is regulated overnight.
While we sleep, our brains are also processing memories and emotions. Therefore, poor or inadequate sleep has been linked to a wide range of psychiatric disorders, such as ADHD, PTSD, depression, and schizophrenia.
Not only does getting quality sleep permits our bodies and minds to become healthier and less at risk of disease, but insufficient sleep is also associated with poor choices in our diets. Weight gain, overeating, and choosing the wrong sorts of high-energy foods are all symptoms that can be combatted by spending a few more hours in bed.
How does exercise fit in?
We all know we should be getting more sleep and working out more. But do these healthy habits fit together?
Many studies have investigated the link between exercise and sleep to determine whether one can impact the other. And they have almost conclusively proved they do.
But it goes further than exercise leading to improved sleep. Getting sufficient sleep can also directly influence your motivation to work out and the benefits you receive from exercise. It’s a two-way street.
A study published in Sleep Medicine found that participants who reported under 6.5 hours of sleep reported an extra 75 minutes of sleep per night after 6 weeks of moderate-intensity aerobic (bicycling, walking, running, etc.) workouts 4 times per week.
There are a few theories why exercise can influence sleep (beyond simply being “tired” after a challenging workout). These are mostly to do with the chemicals released in the brain following exercise.
Many of us know that physical activity helps increase the heart rate, promotes healthy blood and oxygen flows, and releases adrenalin into the system – none of which sound particularly useful for sleepiness. However, investigations have shown that physical activity also causes the brain to produce more adenosine. This chemical is associated with feeling sleepy and is the chemical that caffeine blocks to provide the alert feeling we get from our morning coffee or energy drink.
Due to adenosine production, the more we exercise, the more driven our brains are to find restful sleep.
Exercise can also help maintain a healthy circadian rhythm (your internal body clock). Exercising at the same time every day creates an internalized schedule and can help prime your body to sleep better.
Exercising first thing in the morning is standard advice toted by anyone looking to establish a more effective morning and daytime routine. Morning workouts are also great for maintaining your circadian rhythm: priming your body to know that mornings are for exercise and nights are for sleeping.
But while the benefits of working out in the morning are well established, is it true that completing your exercise in the evenings is necessarily bad?
Despite previous theories, more comprehensive studies have found that some exercise in the evenings may not be detrimental to the sleep cycle and is far more beneficial than skipping your workout entirely.
If you choose to work out after work, then it’s a good idea to complete your exercises no less than 1-2 hours before bed. This gives your body a chance to cool down after the workout and for the adenosine produced by exercise to take effect.
There is evidence to suggest that some evening workouts may actually improve your sleep quality. Yoga-inspired stretches and “moving meditations” are an excellent way of slowing your breathing and bringing your body into a state of relaxation. A resistance band (like the ones from Victorem) can also help form deeper stretches and improve flexibility, which may aid in sleep-filled nights.
A little = a lot
The great news for us sleep-deprived lazy people is that you don’t need to do hours of HIIT training to reap the benefits of better sleep from exercise. Even just a short workout can offer significant improvements to the sleep cycle, and it’s not necessarily linked to losing weight or building muscle.
In fact, in a survey of over 155,000 adults in the US, participants who claimed to have exercised in the previous month were 33% less likely to report sleep problems and 50% less likely to report feeling tired during the day. Any exercise counted here, from gardening to golf, running to weight-lifting.
So, even if you can only fit 10 minutes of exercise into your daily routine, this could be the distinction between sleeping soundly and a restless night.