Have you already nixed naps during the day? Quit afternoon coffee? Sporting a sleep mask, and still can’t doze off for longer than short stints?
Having sleep trouble is frustrating enough — but it’s outright demoralizing to feel like you’re trying all the tricks and still getting nowhere.
Well, before you consider the idea of accepting life as a vampire, try this one last thing. Consider tweaking your workout routine.
If you’re usually sedentary, “adding any type of exercise to your routine will improve your quality of sleep,” says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault.
There’s one caveat: “The exercise must be dosed appropriately,” he says.
Exercise too much (like, WAY too much), and you could end up with something called overtraining syndrome.
A condition marked by too much exercise and too little recovery. It’s the point at which your sweat seshes start causing your bod farrrr more harm than good.
“What qualifies as too much exercise depends on a number of factors like age, health status, training age, and a number of other lifestyle factors,” says Wickham. “But a good general rule of thumb is 2 to 3 rest days per week and no more than 2 HIIT workouts a week,” he adds.
More than that, and you risk being afflicted by overtraining syndrome, and its unsavory symptoms, including:
- decreased exercise performance
- chronic, nagging injuries
- brittle hair and nails
- less-shiny nails
- insomnia and reduced sleep quality
Especially important here is that last symptom: Insomnia and reduced sleep quality. In other words, exercising too much can cause the exact opposite of your improved sleep quality goal.
The W-H-Y comes down to the stress hormone, cortisol.
Generally, your cortisol levels follow your natural circadian rhythm. “They’re highest in the morning, then dip before you go to bed,” says Chris Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It, and medical director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Virginia.
Exercise naturally causes your cortisol levels to rise. “Working out in the morning when your cortisol levels are already highest supports your body’s natural cortisol flow,” he says. While working out before bed causes your cortisol levels to rise when they’re falling naturally.
This is especially true for high intensity workouts, which lead to a greater cortisol spike than lower intensity workouts.
“There is no magic bullet workout routine that is going to automatically lead to better sleep,” says Wickham.
But there are workout routines that may be more or less likely to impact your sleep routine if they’re done right before bed.
Morning: Strength training
Reduced body fat. Improved cardiovascular health. Lower cancer risk. Increased strength. Boosted confidence. Etc.
There’s no doubt: Strength training is good for you. But if you have the option between doing it in the a.m. or p.m… pick the AM.
“During a strength training session, you’re building tension throughout your muscles,” says New-York based certified strength and conditioning specialist Kristian Flores, CSCS. Considering tension is the exact opposite of relaxing, he says, “Strength training close to bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep quickly.”
Strength training also causes the release of catecholamines, a hormone that Flores calls the “amp-up hormone” because of the effect it has on your body. “Catecholamines are the same hormones that are released when you ingest stimulants (like caffeine),” he says.
“Having a blood stream pumped full of these hormones could make it more challenging to fall asleep,” Flores says.
Working out earlier in the day — or at least prior to your last meal — will give the catecholamines a chance to die down, so you can enter a more relaxed state in preparation for sleep.
“Running is a great workout, but just like strength training, it can result in a release of catecholamines that amp a person up,” says Flores. That’s why he recommends limiting higher intensity runs to before bed, including:
- interval sprints
- long runs
- track workouts
- CrossFit WOD with running
Casual jogs, on the other hand, shouldn’t be too destructive to your sleep schedule, Flores says.
If you’re exercising after dinner, Winter recommends some gentle Hatha yoga. “The combination of low intensity movement, breathwork, and meditation can all help your body wind down before bed,” he says.
Yoga not your thing? According to Wickham, a stretch or mobility session in the p.m. can have a similar effect.
If you’re looking for an online mobility program, check out:
Getting a good night sleep requires far more than just a consistent and well-timed exercise routine. If your sleep cycle is still bumpy even after revamping your workout routine, Winter recommends incorporating the following:
Dim the lights
“Blue-green light tells our brains not to make the chemical melatonin, which is the chemical that makes us sleepy,” says Winter. That’s why after dinner time, he recommends dimming the lights in your home.
Also helpful: Wear blue light glasses when using your computer or phone. “Those glasses really help filter out the blue-green light waves that mess with your melatonin production,” he adds.
Get on a sleep schedule
Winter says that consistently waking up and going to bed at the same time not only improves sleep quality when we’re asleep, but it also improves our:
- digestive health
- hormone function
Did you know that between 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. your body temp naturally dips? Yep. That’s because being cool is more optimal for your body compared to being hot.
Winter recommends altering your sleep duds and environment to support that preference. “Wearing lighter clothing or no clothing at night can help keep it cool,” he says. “Adjusting your thermostat can also help.” He recommends somewhere around 65°F.
Exercising absolutely can lead to better sleep quality… so long as it’s executed the right way and at the right time of day.
But don’t lean on exercise alone. Continue altering your schedule and environment where you can to promote better sleep, and seek advice from a doctor if you feel you need to.
Good luck and sweet dreams!
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.