We've all been there: The morning after a particularly rough night of tossing and turning, you're barely a functional human being. But you'd promised yourself you'd get up early to sweat. When you're overtired, it's important to proceed with caution with everything you do — including exercise.
Ideally, you should be sleeping at least seven hours a night, and if you’re not, no matter how much exercise you get, your performance will suffer. Yes, you can work out on five hours of sleep, but it’s not something to make a habit of.
If you’ve been sleep deprived for more than one night, it may be time to evaluate your lifestyle for things that cause trouble sleeping.
Should I Work Out if I Didn't Sleep Well?
If you didn't get enough shut-eye, listen to your body before you lace up your sneakers. "If you were up all night, skip your workout," says Emily McLaughlin, CPT, certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist at 8fit.
"If you worked out consistently all week, take this as a great opportunity to sleep in a bit longer or take a power nap during your scheduled exercise time."
But if you're determined to squeeze in a sweat session on little sleep, McLaughlin recommends avoiding complex exercises. Instead, stick to moves you can easily manage that don't require much coordination. For example, try a light jog or fast walk in place of your usual run "to prevent any rolled ankles or poor running form," she says.
In a small March 2012 study in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, one night of sleep deprivation doesn't negatively affect power in anaerobic exercise such as resistance training. However, it does adversely affect cognitive functions such as reaction time.
Side Effects of Working Out With Little Sleep
When it comes to exercising effectively, you need to be sure you're getting enough sleep each night. Without sufficient rest, you'll struggle to find motivation to work out, and you'll see your performance suffer. Training while sleep deprived is not a great idea.
"Lack of sleep can negatively affect your strength and endurance during a workout," McLaughlin says. "When you're feeling sleep-deprived, not only will your performance suffer, but your risk for injury goes up, your immune system could take a hit, and you might halt some much-needed tissue repair."
Recent research on sleep deprivation highlights just how severe the effects can be of even one night of too little sleep on both your attention and ability to function. Sleep loss can triple your lapses in concentration and double your odds of making mistakes, according to a November 2019 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Training when you haven't had enough sleep means you'll not only be less motivated to train in the first place, but it also means you won't be able to do your best during training. In an October 2015 review in Sleep Medicine Reviews, sleep deprivation was associated with a decrease in performance, whereas adequate sleep correlated to improved performance.
Quick Workout to Do on Little Sleep
If you have just enough energy, McLaughlin says choose a few moves that your body knows well and incorporate them into a low-impact, low-intensity workout. She recommends doing three rounds of the safe moves below on sleep-deprived days.
"In all these moves, you have two feet on the ground, which means a stable base for reducing the risk of falling off-balance," she says.
1. Air Squat
- With your back straight and feet hip-width apart, bend your knees, lowering your butt down as if sitting into a chair.
- Keep your knees in line with your feet and behind your toes.
- Press through your heels as you stand back up.
- Repeat for 15 reps.
2. Wall Push-Up
- Standing a few feet away from a wall, place your hands on the wall under your shoulders.
- Bend your elbows and bring your chest toward the wall, keeping your body in a straight line from head to toe.
- Press back to the start.
- Complete 8 reps.
- Lie on your stomach on a comfortable surface with your forearms on the floor and your elbows directly beneath your shoulders. Keep your feet flexed with the tips of your toes on the floor.
- Keeping your entire body in a straight line, lift onto your toes and forearms.
- Draw your navel toward your spine and squeeze your butt muscles.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
- Support your neck with your hands behind your head, elbows flared out to the sides.
- Exhale, contract your abs, and lift your head and shoulder blades off the ground without straining your neck.
- Inhale as you lower back down.
- Repeat 15 times.
5. Glute Bridge
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor.
- Inhale and press through your heels to lift your hips until your spine forms a straight line.
- Exhale and lower back down.
- Do 15 reps.
How Exercise Helps You Sleep
Exercise offers a variety of health benefits, one of which is better sleep. A September 2012 Journal of Physiotherapy review found that exercise training programs produced moderately positive effects on sleep quality.
And when the 2013 Sleep in America Survey by the National Sleep Association examined exercise and sleep, they found that people who work out regularly said they got better sleep — and those who work out vigorously got the best sleep.
But if you're really low on sleep, there's still some good news: The survey found that those who didn't consider themselves exercisers — but made it a point to sit less during the day — also got better sleep.
Non-exercisers, on the other hand, report having the least energy. They also report having trouble staying awake during normal daily tasks, such as driving, eating or socializing. They report taking more naps than exercisers, and those naps are much longer.
Dangers of Chronic Sleep Deprivation
Many bad things happen when you don't sleep enough. Your body needs sleep to rest and repair, and without it, your health suffers. According to Mayo Clinic, sleep deprivation can negatively affect your body in numerous ways, including:
- Cranky mood and temperament
- Increased appetite
- Poor concentration/focus
- Decreased immune system
And according to a September 2016 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, lack of sleep and poor sleep quality are associated with poor diet quality, excess food intake and obesity in teens. Not only do they eat more, they also spend more time in front of a screen.
Sleep deprivation is associated with high blood pressure, depression, diabetes and other health risks. When you don't sleep enough, you're more likely to feel aches and pains, too. The more sleep deprived you are, the more the ripple effects will influence your day-to-day habits.
- Sleep Medicine Reviews: "Sleep, Circadian Rhythms, and Athletic Performance"
- Asian Journal of Sports Medicine: "The Effect of Sleep Deprivation on Choice Reaction Time and Anaerobic Power of College Student Athletes"
- Journal of Physiotherapy: "Exercise Training Improves Sleep Quality in Middle-Aged and Older Adults with Sleep Problems: A Systematic Review"
- National Sleep Foundation: "2013 Sleep in America Poll: Exercise and Sleep"
- International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity: "Lack of Sleep as a Contributor to Obesity in Adolescents: Impacts o Eating and Activity Behaviors"
- Mayo Clinic: "Sleep: The Foundation for Healthy Habits"
- Journal of Experimental Psychology: General: "Effects of total sleep deprivation on procedural placekeeping: More than just lapses of attention"