Exercise or physical movement is beneficial for getting longer and deeper sleep. However, how you exercise matters.
The timing and the type of the exercise are the main things to consider when looking at your exercise routine as a way to improve your sleep.
How to exercise in the evening
If you want to do some exercise in the evening, keep it more mellow or light.
Yin yoga, walking, or a brief bike ride are some good examples of light type of movement appropriate for your evenings. Or play some music and dance in your living room or bedroom. Just move freely, don’t worry about how “good” your dancing is; close your eyes, feel your body and move.
Why not exercise strenuously in the evening?
Any more strenuous exercise should be done earlier in the day, prior to 5 p.m. This will give your body time to filter through the resulting rush of hormones and neurotransmitters, before you need to settle down into bed.
If you exercise too hard and too late, you may experience a second wind of energy and make it harder for you to fall asleep at the desired time. This usually causes stress and anxiety which then further makes falling asleep harder.
What kind of exercise during the day works for sleeping well at night?
Moderate exercise is most helpful for improving sleep and is usually defined as a type of exertion when you can still talk without being out of breath.
As a general rule, moderate exercise is shown to promote good sleep, while more intense exercise or no exercise at all can actually cause or worsen sleep issues.
That said, not everyone sleeps badly after strenuous exercise. Healthy individuals with no sleep issues will typically still sleep deep and hard, to recover from the exertion. I grew up on a farm and I know this to be true. From long, long days of work, I would put my head on the pillow and not even move some nights.
For those already sleep deprived and struggling with sleep for a while, pushing yourself hard can backfire.
If you do notice that exercising makes it even harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, I recommend taking a a short break from exercise to see if there is a difference.
Slowing down makes it easier to sleep at night
Most people are not aware that it actually takes energy just to fall asleep and stay asleep. So, if you are sleep deprived already, and you are pushing yourself hard with your exercise routine, it becomes even harder to get good rest. The body is then in a constant state of stress. Allow your body to recover and rest.
In Chinese medicine, it is believed that we are born with a certain amount of “chi,” which means ‘energy’ or ‘life force.’ Our chi, naturally declines as we age. However, we can replenish it throughout our lives with good habits such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, loving relationships and… good sleeping habits.
Ultimately, when we are depleted, we need to stop, slow down, and allow the body to focus on recovery. We choose to use our precious chi and internal resources to heal, not to run 20 miles.
An athlete’s dilemma of sleep and exercise
Over the years, I have worked with athletes who themselves were faced with the hard choice to temporarily slow down. It’s a tricky thing because you love your running or biking (or whatever it is for you) so much. You literally feel alive and so happy while you are doing it, and especially, right afterwards. Yet, maybe it’s not serving you in the long term.
The good news is that a break in exercise is temporary. The other good news is that stopping from something that we have been doing for a while gives us a chance to reassess how we do life. Do we really love this, or are we doing it out of years of habit?
Slowing down, plus taking a short nap in the middle of the day can really speed up the healing process. So yes, it is truly temporary, a few weeks usually, though sometimes it can be longer. Then gradually you can start back up.
One of my patients was getting ready for a triathlon but her insomnia was disrupting her regular routine of running and swimming. I recommended that she stop training, but this activity provided her such immense joy that she was unwilling. For a time, I supported her with acupuncture and herbs. But, only a week later, she fell and sprained her ankle. Knowing she had to give up the triathlon completely, she felt sad and depressed for a few days, but then she grew to love her time not doing exercise. Of course, eventually we laughed at the situation. She had to break something in order to really listen and give herself the much-needed space to heal.
Exercise or the lack of it, often only a part of why you can’t sleep
If you feel like you’ve tried it all and believe that your sleep issues go beyond the basics, let’s figure out your solution together by scheduling a free consult or an initial session (locally in Boulder, CO or anywhere in the world by telemedicine).