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  • Writer's pictureMartha Lewis

How to exercise for better sleep

Our bodies are meant to move.

When we look through our evolutionary history, we see that the human body was designed for almost constant movement. Scientists believe that for most of our history, we walked on average about 15 miles per day. We had to hunt, gather, build shelters and escape from predators and enemies. We spent the majority of daytime hours in constant movement with very little time to sit and be sedentary.

In the book called Healthy At 100, the author studied the lives of people around the globe who lived healthily into their nineties and beyond. One of the most common traits that he found was that all of these people did some sort of physical activity on a regular basis and that many of these activities tended to be for their very survival.

Only in the last couple hundred years have we become 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.

Health benefits of exercise

• improves cardiovascular function, bone density and immune function

• reduces blood pressure and cholesterol levels

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

• improves our psychological functioning

Proof that exercise helps us sleep

• A few different studies here from the University of Oregon State found that regular physical activity could be used as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to sleep aids if people got 150 minutes per week (only 20 minutes a day).

• Another study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that people who worked out on a regular basis slept better. Those stats improved further if they also combined some sort of purposeful activity into their weekly regime, such as yoga, meditation, or running.

• The Stanford University School of Medicine found that patients who exercised 20 to 30 minutes every other afternoon by walking, doing low-impact aerobics, or riding their bike cut the time that it took them to fall asleep in half and added an hour of overall sleep time to the night.

That means that just 20 min every other day can help you sleep better and is more effective than sleeping pills which are shown to add only 3-30 minutes of sleep.

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 if it’s affecting your sleep then I suggest scheduling it for another part of the day.

The best type of exercise for sleep

Your activity doesn't have to be strenuous. You don’t need to go to CrossFit or boot camp classes or run 6 miles to be able to sleep. Going for a walk for 20 minutes a day makes a huge difference.

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 can make it even harder for you to sleep.

For most of my clients with high or low cortisol I recommend no more than 30 minutes a day of strenuous cardio exercise. You can walk however much you want. Gentle exercises such as yoga and strength training are great.


Because I work with many active folks, 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,” says Chris Kresser, functional medicine practitioner.

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,” according to Chris Kresser.

Exercise isn’t enough if you’re sitting all day

If you sit all day long, exercise isn’t enough to improve your health. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found that one hour of exercise failed to improve lipid, glucose, and insulin metabolism measured the next day in people that have been sitting for more than 13 hours a day. If you sit all day at work, for meals and before bed, you’re likely sitting at least 13 hours a day.

I recommend standing at least half the day. To start, you can get a laptop stand for your desk for $25 that raises your computer up so you can type standing up. Or you can get a standing or treadmill desk and walk as much as possible during the day. IKEA has relatively inexpensive standing desks that you can raise and lower. I also like to stand on a mini trampoline or balance board so it’s more comfortable than standing on the floor. Here’s my set-up-you can see the laptop stand behind my laptop.

Do you need to exercise more? If so, start slow. You can commit to 1 day of exercise a week. Then 2 days and so on.

Do you need to exercise less? If so, can you commit to limiting strenuous exercise to 30 minutes a day for a month and see how you feel?

Do you need to stand more? If so, what’s your plan to make this happen?

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