Have you ever heard someone claim they’re too tired to exercise? A busy schedule is a convenient – and often completely truthful – excuse for lack of exercise, but it may be far more of a cause of tiredness than many people realise.
New scientific data is starting to show that far from just bulking up your muscles and improving your cardiovascular health, exercise can help you remain mentally alert and stave off fatigue during the day.
It also, interestingly, can help you fall asleep at night. Whether you like a quick run or a heavy weightlifting session, working out can help you fall asleep faster and enjoy deeper, more physiologically rewarding sleep than a sedentary lifestyle.
From the right amount of exercise to the biology behind exercise’s incredible role in sleep, read on to learn more about how you can use regular exercise to sleep better, feel better, and enjoy greater alertness throughout the day.
Put simply, yes. Over the last 15 years, scientists have found that regular exercise is a key component of healthy sleep. Scientists at Northwestern University believe that millions of adults are affected by insomnia and other sleep problems, and that many can be cured not through pharmaceuticals, but through a daily jog.
The science backs up their beliefs. A study of 23 adults, none of whom took part in regular exercise prior to the experiment, showed that just 20 minutes of exercise performed four times a week is enough to substantially improve sleep quality.
While some people might turn to sleeping pills or hormones like melatonin when they need to sleep, a quick walk on the treadmill could have a far greater effect on your sleep quality than a walk to the medicine cabinet.
For most people, the mechanics behind exercise and sleep are simple. Working out during the day burns calories, reducing the amount of energy available for the body to use for alertness. With fewer calories to burn, you fall asleep earlier and tend to spend more time under the covers than you otherwise would.
Behind this simple explanation, however, is a more complicated reality. Exercise doesn’t just make it easier for you to fall asleep, it also tends to give you far more rewarding, significantly deeper sleep. In short, an athlete gets more out of eight hours of nightly sleep than a sedentary office worker would.
This is because exercise has hundreds of other psychological and physiological benefits. One of the hormones most heavily involved in keeping you awake is a stress hormone called cortisol. Stressful activities, from high-pressure meetings to navigating a traffic jam, increase your body’s production of cortisol.
Exercise also leads to a sharp increase in cortisol production, at least in the short term. However, over time, regular exercise actually decreases the effect of cortisol on the body, making it far easier for you to respond to stress signals and manage your body’s stress hormone output.
A dimmed response to stress hormones means better health, a better lifestyle, and for most people, far better sleep. For most people, exercise sets the stage for a great night’s sleep by helping you feel tired earlier through burning calories and dimming the otherwise immense sleep-preventing effects of cortisol.
There’s more to exercise than just better sleep. New research shows that exercise increases mental acuity and alertness, giving you more brainpower when you’re awake and far better recuperation when you’re not.
Harvard University psychiatrist John J. Ratey believes that regular exercise – three or four sessions per week – not only increases mental performance and improves sleep quality, but also reduces the likelihood of cognitive decline in old age.
Beyond the long-term cognitive benefits, regular exercises produces a day-to-day increase in alertness and mental function. Virgin billionaire Richard Branson is a supporter of regular exercise for sleep and productivity, claiming that a workout in the morning helps him “get twice as much done” every workday.
Start exercising and you’ll notice immediate changes to your sleep habits. The late-night tiredness that usually creeps up at midnight will begin earlier, prompting you to get into bed as much as an hour before your typical bedtime. The amount of time you spend awake in bed will also change, often from 30 minutes to less than ten.
While these benefits are immediate, it’s the longer-term benefits of exercise on your sleep patterns that you’ll want to pay attention to. In a 2010 study on exercise and sleep habits, participants reported the greatest improvements to their sleep cycles after 16 weeks of regular exercise.
The lesson is clear: exercise frequently (at least four times per week) and stick to a routine for several months before you write exercise off as unhelpful. The benefits are real, but they could take a few months to really become apparent.
Beyond better sleep and enhanced concentration, there are hundreds of reasons to exercise. Regular workouts improve your strength, reduce your risk of illness and heart disease, and strengthen your respiratory and immune systems.
Better yet, you’ll feel more alert and ambitious, enjoy many more years of cognitive agility, and avoid joint and muscle pain that can occur more frequently as you start to age. From your bedroom to the workplace, exercise has serious benefits for every aspect of your life.
Whether you’re frustrated by light sleep or sick of constantly waking up feeling too tired to enjoy your daily routine, adding exercise to your lifestyle can have massive positive effects on your sleep and your quality of life. A quick walk each morning is all it takes to enjoy a more alert, more enjoyable, and far healthier life.