The relationship between exercise and sleep is a complex one, and depending on a few different factors, your workout can either improve or worsen the quality of your sleep. While in general, a consistent exercise regimen helps you get better shut-eye, intense workouts right before bed might lead to less-than-ideal sleep quality — or a need to sleep in.
Fortunately, with a few simple tweaks your exercise habits, you can avoid mistakes that could keep you up all night, while bettering your chances of falling asleep faster and getting more restful slumber.
1. Don't Sacrifice Sleep for Exercise
If you have to choose between working out or getting necessary rest, always choose rest. "Skipping sleep to work out is like stepping over dollars to pick up a quarter," says yoga teacher and YogaSix master trainer Zac Armstrong. "Give yourself permission to have a couple of rest days so you can grab a few hours of sleep — allow for at least six hours of sleep a night, preferably eight."
If your goal is to move every day, shift your other habits to help you stay active: For instance, drink your morning cup of coffee while walking the dog or meet a friend for an after-work fitness class instead of happy hour.
2. Develop a Consistent Routine
Try to exercise around the same time every day. "Our minds and bodies gravitate toward routine," says Austin, Texas-based personal trainer Jeff Welty. "Plus, having a regular outlet for stress and getting a boost in your feel-good endorphins is important."
The same thing goes for your wake time and sleep time each day — getting into a rhythm trains your body, setting you up for both workout and sleep success. Even if you can only work out at night, "your body will learn not to stress too much about it and you will fine-tune the production of hormones necessary for sleep," says sleep specialist Lina Velikova, MD, contributor to DisturbMeNot.co.
3. Give It Your All
"So if you're only able to sustain that effort for 20 minutes, that's significantly better than just doing something 'easy' on the elliptical for 60 minutes." Shorter workouts are especially helpful if you can only work out in the evening so you can fit in a real dinner and get to bed before it's too late.
4. Match the Lighting to Your Workout Time
Your body will naturally perk up in a well-lit space. So you'll want the light wherever you work out to match the time of day when you're working out. "If you exercise in the morning, try to do some of it outside in the sunshine, since sun light early in the day helps the circadian rhythm stay on track," says Jeanine Joy, Ph.D. of SleepTips.org.
If you exercise at night, avoid a brightly lit gym, if possible. "The light can affect circadian rhythm and delay sleep onset," Joy says. "Try listening to music instead of watching TV while you exercise in the evening too because the blue light from the TV can also affect your body's natural rhythm."
5. Avoid Heavy Lifting Late at Night
Any exercise that puts stress on the body — especially heavy lifting — will cause you to release cortisol, the stress hormone, which wakes up your nervous system and will make falling asleep more difficult.
"The heavier you lift, the more stress you're under and the more cortisol you produce," says sleep researcher Craig Anderson. "Swimming or cycling for a late-night gym session is ideal. If you must lift weights, focus on isolation exercises to fatigue the muscles without placing heavy stress on your whole body."
6. Check Your Pre-Workout's Caffeine Content
A pre-workout supplement or cup of coffee can boost your energy to tackle a workout, but if you're an evening exerciser, the caffeine content might mess with your Zs. "Always check the supplements you use before, during or after a workout to make sure that you're not diminishing sleep quality with unknown stimulants," says Florian Wüest, head Coach at QualityGains.
7. Really Focus on Your Cool Down
Because any amount of exercise will get your body amped up, it's critical that you don't "storm out of the gym, all sweaty and heart racing, after finishing your last set," says Wüest.
He suggests cooling down with a five-minute walk on a treadmill at very low speed while also focusing on your breath. This will combine relaxation with mindfulness and get your body in a better place for sleep.