The benefits of exercise are widely known: better overall health, decreased risk of disease, stronger and more flexible muscles and joints, increased energy and many more. But few talk about how exercise benefits sleep.
People with chronic sleep problems tend to be more sedentary and a lack of physical activity during the day can lead to poorer sleep.
Here are the reasons why exercise helps you sleep better:
Exercise raises your body temperature.
Most people think that their normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and that it stays at this level throughout the day, unless they’re sick. Actually, 98.6 is the average body temperature. It usually varies up to one and a half degrees over the course of the day following a circadian rhythm (circadian means “about a day”), and can be affected by age, hormones and other factors.
Your body temperature is highest in the midafternoon, and then reaches its peak around 6:00pm. It is at its lowest point in the early morning.
Exercise raises your body temperature, which causes a more intense drop in body temp for several hours following exercise. This more dramatic drop in body temperature helps you fall and stay asleep.
Personal Tip: For optimal effect on body temperature, exercise three to six hours before going to sleep. And do not exercise less than three hours before bedtime, as it won’t give your body enough time to cool down, which can keep you up.
Personally, I exercise between 3:00pm-5:00pm and go to sleep around 10:00pm on most nights. I have found exercising at this time a great stress reliever, as well as tiring me out and setting me up for a good night’s sleep.
Exercise places stress on your body.
Stress is usually considered harmful. But when you exercise, you deliberately place stress on your body, which makes you stronger and fitter.
The stress you get from exercise tires you out. Your brain and body compensates for this increased demand by making you sleep deeper, and more soundly, to restore and rejuvenate you.
Exercise increases your exposure to sunlight.
Light and darkness directly affect your circadian rhythm, which regulates your body temperature and sleep on a 24-hour clock. When you are exposed to bright light, your body temperature increases and the release of melatonin (a naturally occurring hormone in your body that promotes sleep) is decreased, causing wakefulness. Conversely, when it’s dark, melatonin levels increase and promote sleep.
However, there’s one problem. The invention of the light bulb, which has provided us countless benefits, has also affected our sleep patterns. Artificial light reduces our daily exposure to sunlight during the day and limits the amount of darkness we get at night. This can disturb our circadian rhythm, body temperature, levels of melatonin and cause sleep problems.
The solution: Take control of your light!
Exercising outside is a fantastic way to increase your exposure to sunlight. Not only will you get the physical benefits and increased body temperature, but you will also maintain your body’s natural circadian rhythm and normal melatonin release, which will improve your energy, mood and alertness during the day and promote better sleep at night.
Here are some other tips for taking control of your light to maintain your circadian rhythm and maximize good sleep:
- As soon as you awake, open the blinds
- Go for a morning walk
- Sit by a window that lets in light during the day
- Dim or shut off the lights at work or at home after sunset
- Refrain from using electronics (computer, smartphone) an hour before bedtime
- Sleep in a pitch dark room (you can use black-out shades or a sleep mask)
- Don’t wear sunglasses—they block the natural light and decrease the affects of sunlight on your body’s sleep system
Personal Tip: When I was experiencing insomnia, I stopped wearing sunglasses. You may think, “But I am so used to them. The light will be too bright without them. And hey, I look pretty cool too.” You may look cool, but unless you need to wear sunglasses for a vision problem, or to prevent severe reflection, you don’t need them.
I had been wearing sunglasses all my life until I had insomnia. It took just a few weeks to adjust and I haven’t worn them since.
Exercise reduces overall stress.
Even though exercise places stress on your body, it is only for a brief period, and then your bodily stress decreases. Exercise loosens your muscles and can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Anxiety and stress keep you awake, so reducing them will help you fall and stay asleep.