• Martha Lewis

How to exercise to improve your sleep without sabotaging it

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

I went live in my Facebook group last Wednesday talking about exercise and sleep. My son Parker was watching his Ipad and, for the first time since he’s been home with me every day, he needed help. Luckily I had just started the live, so I ended it, helped him find what he was looking for, went back upstairs to my desk and started the live again.

I’m finally getting used to the new normal of squeezing in work while he’s on screens for an hour or two a day and then working evenings and weekends when my husband is home. It’s not my ideal situation but it’s what’s happening right now and I’m starting to feel less crazy because of it. I hope you're adjusting to your new normal, too!

Let’s get into this week’s topic (finally, right?): exercise and sleep. Specifically what kind of exercise is best, when you should and shouldn’t exercise and how movement helps you sleep better.

In Jackson, WY where I live, we’re fortunate that we can still recreate outside. From the throngs of people I see walking, running and biking on our pathways (6 feet apart of course), my active mountain town is still ever so active. But I realize that many of you aren’t getting as much exercise as you're used to right now. That’s why I'm going to give you some tips for exercising even if you’re home bound.

Staying active and sleeping well are even more

important right now during this stressful time.

From an evolutionary perspective, we as humans are meant to move. Our ancestors moved a ton for basic survival. Only in the last couple hundred years have we become so much more sedentary with many of us sitting behind a desk and a computer most days. Not coincidentally, it's also in the last couple hundred years that our sleep problems (and health) have gotten so much worse as well.

Think of all the things that have changed in only the last couple hundred of years (processed food, the invention of the light bulb, travel by airplane, driving cars instead of horses and buggies) and in the last few decades (google, computers, and smart phones). No wonder it’s harder for us to sleep and stay healthy!

Studies on people who live really long lives find that all of those people get some sort of physical activity on a regular basis, and usually it’s for their survival. You’re probably aware that exercise is good for you (it’s been stuffed down our lazy throats for decades now), but for inspiration, here’s a quick reminder:

  • improves our cardiovascular function

  • Increases bone density

  • Improves immune function

  • reduces blood pressure

  • lowers cholesterol levels

  • reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke as well as colon cancer, osteoporosis and back problems

  • improves our psychological functioning

My sleep and exercise story

When I wasn't sleeping after my son was born, I also wasn't exercising as much. Before he was born, I enjoyed many fun outdoor activities, like hiking, mountain biking, snowboarding and running. I used to do those things five to seven days a week and so having a baby obviously cut back on how much and how long I could spend doing those activities.

I realized that I needed to move everyday to get back to sleeping great again. Even if I couldn't go on a 3 hour mountain bike ride or snowboard all day, taking a 20 minute walk made all the difference to my sleep. As an added bonus, I felt so much better, too: I was in a better mood, I felt less stress and I stopped feeling gross and lazy. So now I make sure that I walk my dog Bongo for 20 minutes every day no matter what on days that I don’t get “official” exercise.

Proof that exercise helps us sleep

Many studies have been done about exercise and sleep and some are starting to find that regular physical activity could be used as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to sleep aids. That sounds great to me! One study found that when people got 150 minutes of movement per week (just 20 minutes a day), that it improved their sleep.

A study by the Stanford University School of Medicine found that their patients who exercise 20 to 30 minutes every other afternoon by either walking, low-impact aerobics or riding a bike, the time it took them to fall asleep decreased by half and added an hour of overall sleep time to the night. An entire hour! That’s amazing to me. Especially when you compare it to sleeping pills that are shown to extend sleep by 3 to 30 minutes at the most with lots of horrible side effects.

When to exercise

When you exercise, your body temperature rises and then it drops a few hours later. For that reason, you don't want to exercise too close to bedtime. If you’re active at 8pm and try to go to bed at 10, your body temperature will still be really high. Because your body temperature naturally lowers as you fall asleep, having a higher body temperature will interfere with that process and make it harder to fall asleep.

Now if the only time you have to exercise is before bed and it doesn't seem to affect your sleep, then by all means keep exercising at that time. But for people who are having sleep problems, I definitely suggest scheduling it for another part of the day.

I'm a big fan of Dr. Michael Breus and his theory of chronotypes. You're probably familiar with the basic chronotypes of early bird and night owl which are determined by genetics. Dr. Breus has come up with four different chronotypes which he describes in his book The Power of When. He recommends what time you should be doing things like exercising based on your chronotype.

I am a lion, according to Dr. Breus, which means I'm more of a morning person. So he recommends that I exercise around 5:30 in the evening. His reasoning is that morning people tend to get more tired as the day goes on and so activity will give you an extra boost of energy that will last for the rest of the day until bedtime. Bears which are alert more midday and wolves that are more night owls should exercise at different times of the day. I’ll be going in depth about chronotypes sometime in the next couple of weeks so stay tuned if you want to learn more.

The best type of exercise for sleep

I do want to emphasize that your activity doesn't have to be strenuous. I'm not saying that you need to go to CrossFit or boot camp classes or run 6 miles to be able to sleep. In fact, if you aren't sleeping well then I suggest avoiding strenuous exercise. Exercise raises cortisol levels since it’s a stressor on our body. When you're healthy, exercise is a good stress because that stress makes you stronger. But if you're already dealing with other health issues and stressors on your body, then it's adding to an already overflowing bucket of stress. The excess cortisol from that added stress will make it even harder for you to sleep.

How to motivate to exercise

First of all, I suggest putting your activity time in your calendar. Choose which time of day will work best for your schedule (don’t worry about your chronotype for now) and then schedule it. It could be first thing in the morning or at lunch or after work. Whatever works best for you! If you tend to lose motivation throughout the day, then taking a walk first thing in the morning is your best bet.

It helps to do something you enjoy. I realize that I'm fortunate to live in a town with all these really fun activities but the more you can make things fun the better. Going with a friend or listening to motivating music can help, too. If exercise sounds like a four letter word to you, then call it “play” or “activity time” instead.

You can also make it an inspiring challenge and give yourself a reward when you stick to your plan. Say your goal is to move 4 days a week to start. When you achieve your goal, treat yourself to something special (like a movie night or a new pair of yoga pants).

I know it can be tempting to choose between exercise and sleep. Sometimes there seems to be time for only one or the other. But you don't want to cut into your sleep time to make time to exercise. Keep in mind that you can divide your activity into ten minutes chunks throughout the day.

Easy ways to exercise at home

With my son at home now, I'm definitely going a little stir-crazy because I’m not as active as I usually am. So I've been using the 7 Minute workout app. You do 12 thirty-second exercises for a seven minute workout. With exercises like push-ups and jumping jacks, they’re simple but fun because it goes by so quickly. If you do the workout three times a day, then you’re at 21 minutes for the day (and probably sore the next day!).

YouTube also has hundreds of options for workouts you can do at home with no equipment.

My favorite channel that I started doing when my son was a baby during his naps is Fitness Blender. Just last week I started doing some dance workouts (and I’m exactly the opposite of Baby from Dirty Dancing) to make being active inside more fun!

Too much exercise?

Because I work with so many active folks in Jackson and other mountain towns, I want to address overexercising. High intensity or long duration workouts may provide some benefits for those people looking to lose body fat and increase their strength and fitness. But they “may push the body’s stress response too far, leading to a cascade of biochemical responses that can cause serious damage to one’s health in both the short and long term,” according to my favorite functional medicine dude Chris Kresser.

Some of the effects of overtraining include:

  • decrease in neurotransmitters such as glutamine, dopamine and 5-HTP

  • hypothyroidism

  • chronically high levels of cortisol

  • weakened immune system

All of the effects listed above can cause sleep disturbances, too!

“Feeling ill or rundown, losing muscle mass, gaining fat, and constant exhaustion can all be signs of excessive exercise of any type.” If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and you’re one of those ultra active people, you very well may be exercising too much and wreaking havoc on your health and your sleep.

As always, if you aren’t sleeping I invite you to get in touch with me. I’m happy to chat about what’s going on with your sleep and some possible solutions so you can get back to sleeping great. Because I think you are meant to sleep well and do great things!

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