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Fitness and Sleep – how do they go together?

There are all sorts of things that can help you to sleep better at night. A clear conscious, for instance! But hey, I’m not here to discuss moral matters with you. Let’s rather take a look at physical, everyday activities that you can do to help you sleep at night. Today I want to pay special attention to how your fitness levels can affect your sleep, if at all…

After saying “fitness” I think I might have lost some of you already. But please don’t just jump to conclusions straight away! Sure, I am a bit of a fitness freak and I love training, especially mountain biking. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be the same to enjoy a good night’s rest. In fact, I did not sleep very well last night and I thought it might have been because of my gem session two hours before bed time. Hence this blog post. I wanted to find out if exercise close to bed time influences your sleep. Turns out I’m not the only one with these kinds of questions.

Do I have to be a fitness freak to sleep well?

women taking exercise on black stationary bikes in front of gray concrete wall to improve their fitness

Absolutely… not! Being fit definitely has a lot of benefits, but it is not essential to be fit in order to sleep well. Another thing, fitness is a relative term. Sure I think that I am fairly fit, I cycle a lot, I swim or jog every now and so on. But I am by no means an Olympic athlete (even though I sometimes wish I was). And here I am, complaining about not getting enough sleep because of my training schedule. So if you are not very keen on physical exercise, don’t sweat it. The fact is that fitness in and of itself, is not what makes you sleep well at night.

Having said that, there is no doubt that some form of physical exercise every day does have a positive effect on the quality of your sleep. And I’m not just saying this to justify the fact that I enjoy exercising. It has been proven in more that one study that physical activity improves sleeping habits. These studies show that exercising lessens the time it takes to fall asleep, which in turn means that you are asleep for longer when you are in bed. It also showed that the quality of your sleep improves when you did some physical activities during the day.

Why does exercise help me to sleep well?

woman sleeping on bed under blankets

Scientists aren’t exactly sure why this is the case. The most common theory is that exercising helps your body to get rid of stress, which is a sleep inhibitor. But what is stress? It is a term that is so common that people just ascribe any sort of bad feeling towards something as stress. According to Psychology Today, stress is described as the mind’s perception of pressure, and the way that the body reacts to that pressure. This reaction has an effect on your metabolism, your muscles and your memory. In modern society, most people suffer constant pressure at work or at varsity. Thus everyone suffers from stress. Our bodies were simply not made to be under constant stress, and so we get depressed or we have mid-life-crises (plural).

One way to deal with stress is to exercise on a regular basis. Pushing your fitness levels up helps your body to get rid of all the cortisol in your system (hormone that gets released under stressful conditions). How does physical activity help you to get rid of this hormone? Well it’s simple really. When we are faced with stressful conditions our body releases adrenaline and cortisol to enable us to fight or flee. In modern day life, we do neither. We just sit behind the desk and carry on as if nothing happened.

But that hormones need to go somewhere, otherwise it just build up in your body and poisons your system. When we exercise, our bodies use up those hormones and natural balance is restored. Leading to better sleep. I mean, you can imagine that if your body thinks you are in danger, it won’t just allow you to fall asleep, now will it?

Is Fitness an instant fix to my sleeping problems?

selective focus photography of mechanics tool lot

Sadly no. A study done at the Northwestern University’s school of medicine showed that exercise is not an instant cure for sleeplessness. But one bad night’s rest can have a negative influence on the following day’s exercise. So there I found my answer! No, my late night gym session is not what kept me awake last night. But my lack of sleep will influence my workout today. We will have to see about that, as I plan to hit the pool in an hour to swim a couple of laps.

Back to the study on sleeping and exercising. The team of researchers found that moderate physical activity four times a week will improve the quality and quantity of your sleep in the long run. So in essence they showed that your fitness levels does indeed play a role on how well you sleep at night. The study focused on a group of people that suffered from insomnia. None of the study subjects exercised on regular basis. During the 16 week study period, half of the subjects were put on a moderate fitness plan, while the other half just carried on with their lives (and without exercise). After about two months, the group that was improving their fitness levels started to sleep better at night. While the other group still suffered from insomnia.

What is the take home message?

selective focus photography of four silver keys with brown house keychain on brown surface

It seems that doing a bit of physical exercise every now and then will help you to sleep better at night. You don’t have to become a fitness freak, like me. But do a stretch or a yoga pose every now and then! And remember, don’t expect instant results. You have to be consistent and keep up the mild exercise for a couple of weeks at a time to an improvement in your sleeping habits.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube and apps that you can download on your phone to help you with this. You can literally do 5 minutes of exercise a day. It will not only improve your sleep in the long run, it will also help you to feel more awake during the day and it will increase your overall happiness. Exercise releases endorphins into your system (feel good hormones), so you should really give it a go. If you really hate the idea of exercise, go for a walk in the park. Or if that still appalls you, do some breathing exercises.

And then of course, to make sure that you get that sought after, restorative sleep, make sure you are sleeping on a proper mattress and that your pillow is good for your neck! Because remember, if you sleep well, you will also exercise well.

I’m off to hit the pool. Happy reading and sweet dreams!

 

 

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