How Does Good Sleep Improve Exercise?
The Intimate Relationship Between Exercise and Sleep
Quality sleep and optimal workouts are interdependent — you can’t have one without the other. People who are struggling with good sleep can get more physical activity as a way to improve their shut-eye. Likewise, those who are looking to improve their fitness levels can boost recovery by getting a good night’s rest. Consistent healthy sleep patterns will help your body to recover, conserve energy, repair the muscles used during exercise, and support the production of growth hormones.
How Does Exercise Improve Sleep?
Your sleep is controlled, in part, by your body’s internal clock, called your circadian rhythm. This cycle senses and responds to external cues such as light, diet, and even exercise. Your circadian rhythm uses these cues to maintain a predictable pattern of wake time and sleep time.1
A structure in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) uses this information from your environment to send out signals to the rest of your body, controlling different processes such as hormone levels, metabolism, and feelings of sleepiness.1 When you are more active, get lots of exposure to bright light early on, and eat during the day (rather than right before bed), you are confirming to your biological clock that it is daytime. This sets up the capacity for your body to more easily recognize that it is time to sleep once nighttime comes around.
Exercise has been shown to boost levels of adenosine, a brain chemical that increases your sleep drive — your need for sleep.2 When you first wake up, adenosine levels in your brain are low. The longer you are awake, the more your adenosine levels rise and the sleepier you get.3 Exercise can help strengthen this process by encouraging your cells to make more adenosine, reinforcing your innate biological urge for sleep later on.
Researchers have conducted dozens of studies that link physical activity and sleep.4 These studies have found that a consistent exercise program can:
- Make it easier for you to fall asleep faster
- Help you sleep for longer lengths of time without interruption
- Increase the amount of time you spend in deeper stages of sleep
- Reduce your time spent lying in bed awake
Studies have reported improvements in sleep with both aerobic exercise, such as jogging or swimming, and resistance training, such as bodyweight exercises or lifting weights. Additionally, multiple studies have found that people may get the most sleep benefits when they exercise in the mornings.4
Why is Sleep Important for Improving Exercise?
People with poor sleep tend to be less active than those who regularly experience healthy sleep. For example, athletes tend to sleep better and longer than those who don’t get much physical activity.5
Sleep does several important things for people who are trying to increase their overall level of fitness. Quality sleep can:
- Allow your body to recover. Sleep is a time for your body to rest and repair its tissues, including resting the heart, which helps you feel your best the next day.6 People who don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis are 1.7 times more likely to become injured.7
- Help you perform better. Not getting enough sleep can hinder your muscle strength, deplete your fuel stores, make you slower, decrease your endurance, and cause you to fatigue more quickly. Some studies have even studied specific competitions and found that the athletes who got the best sleep were likely to place the highest!5
- Improve your metabolism. Your circadian rhythm helps control your metabolism. Poor sleep decreases your glucose tolerance — your fat cells can’t use sugar for fuel as effectively as they should.8 In the long term, this can increase your risk of obesity and diabetes.9
- Ensure your body has enough growth hormone. A chronic lack of sleep reduces the amount of growth hormone that your body makes.9 This molecule is what helps muscles grow bigger and stronger.
Many studies show why sleep is important for fitness and athletic performance. Aim for at least 7-8 hours for optimal results!
Improving sleep in the long run with CBT-I
You may be able to improve your sleep with some simple steps, such as avoiding caffeine in the afternoons and evenings, steering clear of alcohol, finishing meals several hours before bedtime, and keeping your bedroom cool and dark.6
In some cases, these tips aren’t enough to reverse your sleeping troubles, and some personalized guidance may be needed. To learn more about how to improve your specific situation and to work with a sleep coach, fill out this simple questionnaire.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Overview of Circadian Rhythms. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/85-93.htm
Dworak, M., Diel, P., Voss, S., Hollmann, W., & Strüder, H. K. (2007). Intense exercise increases adenosine concentrations in rat brain: implications for a homeostatic sleep drive. Neuroscience, 150(4), 789–795. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2007.09.062
Bjorness, T. E., & Greene, R. W. (2009). Adenosine and sleep. Current neuropharmacology, 7(3), 238–245. https://doi.org/10.2174/157015909789152182
Dolezal, B. A., Neufeld, E. V., Boland, D. M., Martin, J. L., & Cooper, C. B. (2017). Interrelationship between Sleep and Exercise: A Systematic Review. Advances in preventive medicine, 2017, 1364387. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/1364387
Watson A. M. (2017). Sleep and Athletic Performance. Current sports medicine reports, 16(6), 413–418. https://doi.org/10.1249/JSR.0000000000000418
MedlinePlus. (2021, October 18). Healthy Sleep. https://medlineplus.gov/healthysleep.html
Huang, K., & Ihm, J. (2021). Sleep and Injury Risk. Current sports medicine reports, 20(6), 286–290. https://doi.org/10.1249/JSR.0000000000000849
Broussard, J. L., Ehrmann, D. A., Van Cauter, E., Tasali, E., & Brady, M. J. (2012). Impaired insulin signaling in human adipocytes after experimental sleep restriction: a randomized, crossover study. Annals of internal medicine, 157(8), 549–557. https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-157-8-201210160-00005
Sharma, S., & Kavuru, M. (2010). Sleep and metabolism: an overview. International journal of endocrinology, 2010, 270832. https://doi.org/10.1155/2010/270832
Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Areas of expertise include insomnia and other sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.
Dr. Ehrnstrom is not a medical provider and is not providing any recommendations regarding medications. Rather, she is sharing and reviewing the research as it relates to education when learning how best to treat insomnia.