Sleep and Exercise: Is Your Workout Ruining Your Sleep?

The timing of your workout could be preventing you from getting the rest you need.

By Andrea Pisani Babich

The road to your insomnia was paved with good intentions. Like anyone else who takes care of their body and mind, you know the many benefits of regular exercise — including better sleep — and make it a point to include regular exercise into your weekly schedule. But you find that the only way to squeeze in a regular workout is to do it right before you climb into bed. The power of the snooze button, the chaos of the morning rush out the door, and the demands of dinner time all conspire to keep you from the gym before the daily dust finally settles well into the evening.

Then, instead of dropping gently into the Land of Nods after your nighttime workout, you toss and turn for hours until you finally fall asleep. What’s going on?

Yes, your workout did wear you out, but it also raised your body temperature, increased your heart rate, and pushed your body to produce more cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, which inhibits the production of sleep-promoting melatonin. All of these changes are known to make falling asleep more difficult. But at least you got your workout in.

Reasons to Love Exercising at Night

In spite of its interference with your sleep, working out at night can have several benefits.

  • You’re not a morning person. Some people are simply not functional until well into the morning when the daytime responsibilities monopolize your attention. Once the day gets going, it may not stop until after the dinner dishes have been cleaned up and the kids are tucked into their beds.
  • The stress of the day gets left at the gym. Whatever demons you have faced during the day could come back to haunt you at night when you try to sleep if you don’t exorcize them (see what I did there?). A hundred laps in the pool or a kickin’ Zumba class are perfect ways to release a buildup of stress that could keep you up at night and ruin the next day.
  • The gym is more fun at night. If you’ve ever been to the gym first thing in the morning, you know that those people are not there to have fun. They’ve gotten up at 5:00 am to get in, get out, and on their way to work. But at night? Well, there’s often a different vibe in the gym at night. Because people have come knowing they are burning off steam, they tend to be more relaxed, more social, and more inclined to spot you on your bench presses.
  • Exercise longer, stronger, better. Without the demands of the day looming before you, the only limit on your workout can be closing time and your endurance. At least one study has found that participants’ performance and endurance during evening workouts was significantly better than during morning exercise.
  • One less thing to do in the morning. I don’t know about you, but my mornings include walking the dog, making three different breakfasts for my finicky family, making three different lunches for said family, cleaning up the breakfast dishes, showering, and dressing — all before eight o’clock. And I am a morning person! Who has time for a morning workout?

How to Keep Your Late-Night Gym Time from Ruining Your Sleep

With all those advantages to nighttime workouts, you may find you just can’t give up your late -night trip to the gym. But you don’t need to lose sleep over it. You can prevent post-workout insomnia with a few simple precautions.

  • Two-hour delay. Allow at least two hours to cool down, normalize your heart rate, and level off your cortisol. Save some light chores or reading to do after your burn session to give your body a chance to normalize before bedtime.
  • Cool off. Lower your body temperature (and wash off that nasty gym sweat) by taking a hot shower. The cooling effect of drying off will drop your body temperature, signaling to your brain that it’s time to snooze.
  • Establish a soothing ritual. Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…,” but he wasn’t talking about sleep. Establishing a bedtime routine and sticking to it is one of the best ways to signal to your body and mind that it’s time for bed. Going to bed at the same time every night is a good start. Need more ideas? Try these.
  • Have a nightcap. Not the alcoholic kind. They will disrupt your sleep. A warm cup of chamomile tea or a sleep smoothie packed with healthy ingredients that have been proven to promote sleep can help send you off to La-La Land with nary a toss or a turn.
  • Go gently into the night. Save your high-intensity sweat sesh for the weekend. If you must workout at night, lighten up a bit on the intensity of your cardio workouts and include longer rests between sets of weightlifting. Or round out your session with light stretching or yoga. Not only will you get your body moving but you’ll be preparing it for sleep instead of revving it up.
  • Sleep on a great mattress. The best mattress for athletes will truly help you make the most of your restoration and healing time after your workouts. Be sure you know what to look for.

Mindfulness exercises, yoga, and meditation are good choices for people whose regular nighttime workout keeps them from falling asleep. These gentle exercises may not seem like they’re doing much to improve your health, but they are actually doing some pretty amazing things for you. The benefits of practicing mindful movement activities include:

  • stress management
  • reduced risk and symptoms of depression
  • faster sleep onset
  • longer restorative sleep
  • improvement in heart health including blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate
  • improvement in balance and stability
  • relief from chronic pain
  • lift in mood and spirits especially in people with chronic illnesses

When to Exercise for Maximum Sleep Benefits

If your schedule and personality type allow for exercise earlier in the day, should it be early morning? Lunchtime? Afternoon? Well, even the experts can’t agree because research results do not point to unequivocal conclusions.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, “People who work out on a treadmill at 7:00 a.m. sleep longer, experience deeper sleep cycles, and spend 75 percent more time in the most reparative stages of slumber than those who exercise at later times that day.” One study found that early morning aerobic workouts were more effective in lowering nighttime blood pressure than early afternoon or evening workouts. This led to greater time spent in deep, restorative sleep for participants. A word of caution from fitness experts: especially for older adults, early morning workouts should include a healthy dose of pre-workout warmup and gentle stretching to prevent sprains and injuries.

On the other hand, there’s good reason to believe that exercise in the afternoon can not only enhance your workout but also ensure a good night’s sleep. In the morning, your muscles are cold and stiff, making you more susceptible to injury during an early morning workout. Your body temperature is one or two degrees higher in the afternoon so muscle strength, efficiency, and endurance may peak during this time. Quicker reaction times and lower heart rate and blood pressure during afternoon workouts will also improve your performance, making your workout not only more effective but also more satisfying. Feeling good about your workout is a key factor in encouraging you to stick to your exercise regimen. Finally, a late afternoon workout allows enough time for your core temperature to decrease, which is an important signal to shift into sleep mode.

Most fitness and sleep experts agree that the best time for you to exercise is the time slot that allows you to maintain a consistent exercise regimen — morning, afternoon, or evening. Consistent workout times can increase the effectiveness of your workout, increase the chances of your actually getting to the gym, and be less disruptive to sleep than the occasional nighttime workout.

How Much Should You Exercise?

In November 2018, the U.S Depart of Health and Human Services published the latest recommendations for physical activity for children and adults, including older adults and people with chronic health conditions. For healthy adults, a weekly regimen of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of high-intensity aerobic activity will reap substantial health benefits.

Adults should also include muscle-strengthening activities of at least moderate intensity on two or more days a week for additional health and wellness benefits such as:

  • Preventing bone and muscle loss due to aging
  • Increased strength and overall fitness
  • Weight control
  • Improved balance, stability, coordination, and posture
  • Decreased arthritis pain
  • Help controlling glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes
  • Increased energy levels
  • Elevated mood

The guidelines are quick to note that some physical activity is better than none at all. If you don’t have an exercise routine, start one. Start small and work up to longer and stronger intensity workouts.

Be sure to consult with your physician before starting or dramatically changing your exercise regimen.

The takeaway? Exercise is good for you in a wide variety of ways, including its ability to promote sound sleep. When you work out is less important than that you work out and that you work out consistently. Find a time that works well for you without disturbing your sleep and just do it.

When do you prefer to exercise? Does your workout promote sleep? Share your story in the comments below. 

Comments (1)

  1. What works for some might not work for others. The time that works best for me to do my workouts is in the morning. I feel better and energized after working out in the morning. IT gets me ready for my dayjob.

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