The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre

Poor sleep quality is a common issue for many people, in fact, one in four people experience sleep difficulties. This includes trouble falling or staying asleep, early morning waking, sleeping too much, or experiencing a restless sleep. Experts agree that regular exercise helps improve sleep quality but recent studies suggest that the combination of sleep and exercise may be more complex than we think.

It may surprise you that introducing regular moderate exercise into a previously sedentary lifestyle will likely not see immediate results. A small study done with older adults showed that adding in physical activity may take weeks or even months before seeing significant improvements in sleep quality.  On the other hand, the study also showed that though it may take a while before seeing any changes in improvement, having disrupted or not enough sleep directly affects the length and quality of an exercise performed.  Basically if a person is tired, their workouts will likely be shortened and of a lesser intensity.

Overall we know that exercising produces numerous positive outcomes for your body, mood, and overall health – including sleep – one just needs to be patient and keep moving.

A National Sleep Foundation poll found that regular exercisers were significantly more likely to report sleeping well on most nights than people who were not physically active.

When is the best time to exercise?

Answers to this question are mixed and usually run along the lines of “whatever works best for you”.  Specifically for best quality sleep, it’s generally recommended that you give your body at least 4-6 hours to cool down after a workout. Ideally you want your heart rate and temperature to be at resting levels before heading off to bed.

How to use exercise for a better sleep

Experiment with different sports or fitness workouts. Moderate aerobic activities seem to have the best results, so try walking (briskly), cycling, badminton, or tennis. If you’ve never really exercised before, lighter activities can help as well, such as light yard work, mopping or vacuuming, and yoga the goal is to get your body moving.

Make exercise a habit. Find out a time of day and activity that works and is fun for you. If you enjoy the activity, chances are you will stick with it. Be sure to give yourself enough time before bed to cool your body down, the drop in your body temperature makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Some of these tips will be easier to include in your daily and nightly routine than others. However, if you stick with them, your chances of achieving restful sleep will improve. If you suspect that you have a sleep disorder such as apnea, restless legs syndrome or narcolepsy, please see a sleep specialist.

References from the SIRC Collection:

Miller B, O’Connor H, Orr R, Ruell P, Cheng H, Chow C. Combined caffeine and carbohydrate ingestion: effects on nocturnal sleep and exercise performance in athletes. European Journal Of Applied Physiology. December 2014;114(12):2529-2537.

Sleep and Exercise. IDEA Fitness Journal. March 2014;11(3):87.

Souissi M, Chtourou H, Souissi N, et al. Effect of time-of-day of aerobic maximal exercise on the sleep quality of trained subjects. Biological Rhythm Research. June 2012;43(3):323-330.

Viana V, Esteves A, Mello M, et al. The effects of a session of resistance training on sleep patterns in the elderly. European Journal Of Applied Physiology. July 2012;112(7):2403-2408.

Yang P, Ho K, Chen H, Chien M. Exercise training improves sleep quality in middle-aged and older adults with sleep problems: a systematic review. Journal Of Physiotherapy (Australian Physiotherapy Association). September 2012;58(3):157-163.

Yuuka H, Yoshiaki N, Takuro H, Sotoyuki U. The Effects of Different Intensities of Exercise on Night Sleep. Advances In Exercise & Sports Physiology. February 2014;20(1):19-24. Available from: SPORTDiscus with Full Text, Ipswich, MA.