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Does Exercise Before Bed Really Affect Your Sleep?

Late-night exercise can impact your sleep. Try to workout at least 1.5 hours before bed, or at least opt for low-intensity exercise in low light.
Published
2021-09-20
Updated
2022-06-06
16 MINS
Woman jumping rope and exercising before bed.

It’s 8 p.m., and you’ve just tied up some loose ends at work. You debate going for a quick run as you haven’t had a chance to work out. But, your bedtime is in a few more hours — so, should you exercise before bed or not?

All of us are crystal clear on the benefits of exercise, from a fitter body to better sleep at night. To reap all of its perks, though, the timing of your workouts matters enormously. Just as exercising in the morning boosts your alertness and endorphin levels, working out too late in the evening can make it harder to fall asleep and sleep through the night. And we all know how insufficient sleep sabotages our performance in the gym — and every other aspect of our lives.

That's why we've written this post to help you decide whether you should exercise before bed or not. Ahead, you will learn how the timing (and intensity) of your workout routine can help or hinder your sleep tonight, plus the one exercise you should totally do at night.

Can Exercise Help You Sleep?

We already know the general benefits of regular exercise range from weight loss to better heart health, but exercise can also improve your sleep, even if it’s done late in the day. Below, the scientific community casts a spotlight on the relationship between working out and nighttime sleep:

  • Research shows regular physical activity at moderate intensity benefits people with chronic insomnia. Daytime workouts reduce the time you take to fall asleep (sleep latency) and middle-of-the-night awakenings (sleep fragmentation). Exercise also enhances sleep efficiency, which is the amount of time you spend asleep while in bed.
  • Physical activity is a natural buffer against stressful life events. A 2014 study explained that regular aerobic exercise significantly lowered cortisol levels during high-stress situations. Given that elevated cortisol and sleep loss are closely intertwined, exercise is an effective stress management technique to help you meet your sleep need (the genetically predetermined amount of sleep your body needs).
  • A consistent workout routine may also help with certain sleep disorders. A meta-analysis revealed that exercise downplayed the severity of obstructive sleep apnea (a respiratory disorder that interrupts your sleep). It also improved unwanted side effects such as daytime drowsiness and poor sleep efficiency.

So those were the sleep benefits of exercise in general, but what about the specific benefits of exercise before bed? 

  • According to a 2019 meta-analysis in the Journal of Sports Medicine, evening workouts significantly increased slow-wave sleep (deep sleep), which is needed for muscle recovery and memory consolidation.
  • A 1997 study in the Journal of Biological Rhythms discovered that high-intensity exercise during the evening (or night) boosts melatonin secretion by almost 50%, provided that your body is already producing peak levels of this sleep-promoting hormone. As such, vigorous exercise before bed may increase sleep pressure — the urge to sleep — and potentially help you fall asleep more quickly.
  • A 2020 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found participants who exercised four hours before bed got better quality sleep compared to those who didn’t (even though there is no scientific consensus on sleep quality yet). And even those who exercised two hours before bed didn’t see a negative impact on their sleep.

But, before you decide on a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session tonight, you may want to read about the drawbacks of exercise before bed in the next section.

 

Is Working Out Before Bed Bad for Your Sleep?

Exercising close to bedtime is an issue because it can change the timing of your circadian rhythm — or your body’s internal clock that runs on a roughly 24-hour cycle. 

For the uninitiated, zeitgebers (the German word for "time givers") are the social and environmental cues that influence your circadian rhythm. These time cues have the power to reset your internal body clock. They can work for you by promoting circadian alignment or work against you by tripping up your biological clock. And physical activity is one of these zeitgebers. 

In human-speak, that means the timing and intensity of your workout program can bring forward or delay your bedtime. On top of that, exercise well-timed to your unique chronobiology may potentially improve your overall health and wellness. So, exercising is obviously great for your body and mind, you just need to get the timing and intensity of it right to make sure you don’t impact your bedtime. 

But it’s not just about your circadian rhythm. When you exercise, your body releases elevated amounts of stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones, along with a spike in your metabolic rate, heart rate, and blood pressure, raise your core body temperature during cardio (or any kind of workout, really).

When your body is in stress mode and battling a higher-than-normal body temperature, you naturally find it harder to fall asleep. Even if you do somehow manage to doze off, the same 2019 meta-analysis discussed in the previous section notes that vigorous exercise before bed lowers your sleep efficiency, thereby reducing your total sleep time.

The earlier 1997 study also stated that one of the effects of evening exercise is a delayed melatonin production 24 hours later. In other words, you are predestined to a later bedtime the next night, possibly escalating your sleep debt (the amount of sleep you've missed out on in the past 14 days, relative to your sleep need).

The bottom line is: 

  • Exercising too close to your target bedtime dampens the odds of a good night's sleep
  • The more vigorous your workout, the longer it takes for your body to wind down (including cool down) and drift off to sleep.

As such, be careful of the timing and intensity of your fitness routine to ensure you aren't exercising at the expense of lost sleep.

It’s More Than Just the Workout Disrupting Your Sleep  

But it’s not just the exercise itself that may disturb your sleep. Light exposure plays a huge role in your sleep. That’s because melatonin — the sleep-promoting hormone — is suppressed by light. Get too much light in the evenings and your brain can’t produce melatonin as efficiently, meaning you may find it much harder to fall asleep. So, if your evening workout involves spending time in a brightly lit gym, the light alone may make it harder to fall asleep, without even taking into consideration the late-night workout, too.

What’s more, late-night workouts may come with late-night meals afterwards. Food — just like light — can make falling asleep much harder to do and can actually shift the timing of your circadian rhythm. Digestive discomfort may keep you up or even wake you up in the night, and rich or sugary foods may make it hard to switch off in the first place. We’ve covered more about eating before bed here. 

 

How Can I Exercise Before Bed Without Disrupting Sleep?

RISE app screenshot showing when to get and avoid bright light.
The RISE app can tell you when to get and avoid bright light exposure.

If exercise before bed is the only window of time in your busy schedule, we recommend scheduling your workout at least a few hours before your target bedtime. Evening and night exercise may also work well for those on a night-shift schedule to stay awake past their usual bedtime. In fact, research shows that evening exercise may be more beneficial for night owls than morning people in terms of nighttime sleep.

To minimize disruptions to your target bedtime when training at night, keep these three factors in mind:

  • Intensity: Because vigorous exercise within an hour of your bedtime delays sleep, choose light- to moderate-intensity workouts at least 1.5 hours before bed. This gives your core body temperature plenty of time to return to baseline without compromising nighttime sleep.
  • Sleepability: When deciding how late to work out in the evening, take note of your sleepability skills — how fast you fall asleep in the absence of sleep debt. If you identify as a habitually poor sleeper or have sleep problems (for example, you are an insomniac), exercise at least four hours before your target bedtime.
  • Type of exercise: Forsake aerobic exercise and resistance training for gentle, relaxing physical activities like yoga. Research shows that three months of Hatha yoga and Omkar meditation in the evening increased melatonin levels to enhance nighttime sleep.
  • Light: Remember that bright light exposure too close to bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep. So, workout outside if it’s safe to do so, or stick to a dark corner of the gym. Better yet? Skip brightly lit gyms altogether and opt for a yoga session at home with the lights dimmed.

Post-workout, a wind-down routine in the 1-2 hours leading up to bed is an absolute must-have. It physically and mentally disengages you from the "fight" mode you were in when sweating it out. Also, a cold shower as part of your wind-down routine helps cool down your core body temperature more quickly to prepare you for sleep.

And remember sleep hygiene — the set of behaviors you can do throughout the day to help you sleep at night. This includes things like keeping your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet, and avoiding caffeine and large meals too late in the day. If you’ve done a late workout, make sure to stay on top of these behaviors to make falling asleep and staying asleep all night easier.

The RISE app can remind you when to wind down after your evening workout to make the habit stick. It can also tell you the best time to do things like have your last coffee and meal, when to avoid light in the evenings, and remind you to check your sleep environment. 

When’s the Best Time of Day to Exercise?

RISE app screenshot showing your energy peaks and dips.
The RISE app can predict your energy peaks and dips each day. 

Now that you are aware of how exercise before bed can affect sleep, when are the better times to train and still get enough sleep?

We recommend four windows of time during the day to get your heart rate pumping, depending on what your goals are. In the language of the RISE app, these include your: 

  • Grogginess Zone: Exercising soon after you roll out of bed helps curb the worst of sleep inertia (wake-up grogginess), so that you can shorten your stay in the Grogginess Zone. If possible, work out in the presence of sunlight, which is another vital circadian cue that helps you fully wake up.
  • Morning and evening peaks: During these two periods, your body is biologically primed to be alert and productive. Slotting in a workout during your energy peaks gives you the best chance of reaching your PR, or otherwise crushing it.
  • Afternoon dip: It may sound counter-intuitive to move your body during your energy dip. But exercise can be a useful pick-me-up while giving you the sense of being productive during a time in which you might otherwise be languishing. 

Below, we share what research has to say with regard to working out in the above time periods.

During Your Grogginess Zone

There are many benefits to an early morning workout according to science.

Upon waking up, your body's cortisol levels are at an all-time high, a phenomenon scientifically known as the cortisol awakening response (CAR). Due to cortisol's anti-inflammatory properties (when present in optimal amounts), this stress hormone supercharges your rest-and-repair capabilities. A cardio workout (like cycling) during your CAR may then allow you to take advantage of your cortisol-afforded post-exercise recovery and improve your nighttime sleep.

If you need hard proof, a small-scale study involving 20 participants weighed morning (7 a.m.), afternoon (1 p.m.), and evening (7 p.m.) exercises against one another. The verdict was clear — the early morning workout trumped the rest and extended deep sleep longer than the afternoon session. (Do note that the study did not specify the chronotype distribution — whether people were early birds or night owls — which may influence individual results.)

More evidence indicates that after a workout, your body's cortisol levels stay low for the next 24-48 hours. This is probably why you feel lighter and more relaxed for the rest of the day and throughout the night, translating to better sleep. A 2019 study also highlights that aerobic exercise amplifies the body's CAR, which is then "positively associated with greater decreases in subjective stress."

To get the most out of your morning workouts for nighttime sleep, pair exercise with sunlight to enhance your body's melatonin production and reduce sleep latency. If you are a night owl transitioning to an early bird schedule, keeping fit in the morning sun also has the added benefit of advancing your sleep and wake-up times.

You don’t even need to do a full workout to get the benefits of morning exercise. Even a 10-minute brisk walk outside will help to wake you up and the natural light will set your circadian rhythm up for a good night’s sleep that night. 

Morning and Evening Peaks vs. The Afternoon Dip

Previously, we’ve established that your morning peak is a prime time for physical activity. That being said, if you aren't a fan of morning workouts, you can consider exercising during your evening peak instead. This is the period in which your core body temperature, motor coordination, and muscle strength climax. It's no wonder, then, that many world records are surpassed during this second energy peak.

For the same reason, West Coast teams in the NFL defeated East Coast teams 66% of the time during Monday Night Football. As West Coast teams play closer to their second peak of the day, they have a circadian advantage over East Coast teams.

If you're curious about the best exercises to perform during your evening peak, incorporate high-intensity or strength training into your routine. You can sign up for a HIIT class or give weightlifting a shot.

As we mentioned earlier, another option is to work out during your afternoon dip. So, what exercises should you do during your afternoon dip? Your best bet is something low, slow, and steady, such as a long bike ride or a casual walk. If you need to counter flagging productivity at work during your dip, go for a quick jog instead.

 

Does Sex Count as Exercise Before Bed?

In most cases, nighttime exercise infuses your system with too much adrenaline for you to drift off to sleep easily. Plus, the hotter-than-normal body temperature goes against the grain of your circadian rhythm. But there is one caveat to the rule — sex.

A 2019 study involving 778 adults explains how orgasms lead to better sleep at night:

  • Orgasms release a concoction of oxytocin and prolactin and repress cortisol secretion. These hormonal changes relax your body and mind, setting the stage for sleep.
  • While orgasms achieved with a partner favorably influenced sleep outcomes, self-induced orgasms (masturbation) were associated with "better sleep quality and latency." 

On a cognitive level, orgasms switch off the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex — the brain areas regulating alertness, anxiety, and decision-making, respectively. These neurological transformations loosen your mind's hold on worries and stress. When you aren't on high alert, it's much easier for sleep to overtake you.

Just like how sufficient sleep improves your exercise performance, meeting your sleep need will enhance your lovemaking sessions. One study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine discovered that after an extra hour of sleep, participants were 14% more likely to have sex the next day.

The reason being, fatigue induced by sleep insufficiency disrupts the hormonal production contributing to your sex drive. Sleep deprivation also kicks your cortisol production into overdrive. Excess cortisol then redirects blood away from your reproductive organs, resulting in a lower sex drive.

 

Should I Prioritize Exercise Over Sleep?

RISE app screenshot showing your sleep need so you can keep sleep debt low.
The RISE app can work out how much sleep you need.

 If you’re thinking about staying up later to get a workout in, think again. While exercise is important to health, so is your sleep. But getting enough sleep isn’t just crucial for health and well-being, it can drastically impact your workouts, too. 

By sleeping for longer, research shows you can even improve your overall athletic performance. Getting enough sleep also reduces the risk of injuries and maintains optimal muscle health. 

Just as your body needs exercise to stay healthy, it also requires rest to help your muscles bounce back from physical activity. This is where the human growth hormone (GH) is necessary to your workout goals.

Scientific evidence indicates that GH production peaks during deep sleep and may last for 1.5-3.5 hours. Interruptions to deep sleep (in the form of insufficient sleep or waking up in the middle of the night) could deprive your body of the chance to fully repair and recover. Moreover, a later bedtime delays peak GH secretion — all the more reason to hit the sack early.

All this is to say that you should prioritize getting enough sleep each night and getting your workouts in earlier in the day, instead of sacrificing sleep to do them. 

Not sure how much sleep is right for you? RISE can work out what your individual sleep need is based on your phone use behavior. While the average sleep need is 8 hours 10 minutes, plus or minus 44 minutes or so, 13.5% of the population may need 9 hours or more sleep a night. 

Get the Best of Both Worlds: Regular Exercise + Good Sleep 

While exercise before bed may seem like a staple in a healthy lifestyle, there's plenty of research indicating otherwise. Vigorous workouts too close to your bedtime can wind you up so much that you can't fall asleep by your target bedtime (unless we're talking about sex). Consequently, you struggle with inflated sleep debt and suboptimal energy levels the next day. It's a far cry from the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed vision you were aiming for after an invigorating night workout.

Instead, try exercising in the early morning, during either of your energy peaks, or during your afternoon dip to downplay the risk of sleep insufficiency later that night. Want bonus points? Combine daytime exercise with sun exposure to improve your nighttime sleep. 

And if you still want to exercise before bed, opt for a gentle workout in low light to avoid a sleepless night.

The RISE app can tell you when to work out and when you shouldn’t based on your unique chronobiology. Use the Grogginess Zone, and daily energy peaks and dips on the Energy Schedule to guide the timing and intensity of your exercise routine. The app can also remind you when to avoid late workouts, and so when you should consider switching to gentler exercise. All of this will set you up for a good night’s sleep for better energy during the day and optimal health and wellness in the long run.

There Is a Best Time for Everything:

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Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.
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