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.
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.
Scientists have discovered the circadian phase-shifting effects of physical activity. In human-speak, that means the timing and intensity of your workout program can bring forward or delay your bedtime (which we will explore in detail later). On top of that, exercise well-timed to your unique chronobiology may potentially improve your overall health and wellness.
We already know the general benefits of regular exercise range from weight loss to better heart health. Below, the scientific community casts a spotlight on the relationship between working out and nighttime sleep:
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.
Besides that, 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 and potentially help you fall asleep more quickly.
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.
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. On top of that, 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.
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:
Below, we share what research has to say with regard to working out in the above time periods.
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 of the participants, 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.
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.
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:
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.
When designing your exercise routine, keep in mind that there are few gains without sleep.
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.
Thus, meeting your sleep need is crucial to maintaining optimal muscle health and lowering the risk of exercise-induced injuries.
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:
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.
The RISE app can remind you when to wind down after your evening workout to make the habit stick. Just add the "Evening Routine" habit to your Energy Schedule after customizing your wind-down activities.
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. Combine daytime exercise with sun exposure to improve your nighttime sleep. If you still want to exercise before bed, take note of the factors and precautions mentioned earlier 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. Doing so will likely set you up for a good night’s sleep for better energy during the day and optimal health and wellness in the long run.
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