How to Harmonize Your Exercise and Sleep Habits

By Courtney Leiva

Expert review by Christine Stevens, Sleep Coach and Owner of Sleep Solutions by Christine

Apr 30, 2021

From physical perks like improved energy levels, lowered risk for heart disease, and muscle toning to mood improvements, exercise offers countless benefits to the body and mind.

At the same time, daily exercise has a positive impact on how you sleep.

A study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science demonstrated this connection. Using a combined treatment program with physical exercise and sleep education.

The study confirmed that “duration of PA (physical activity) is significantly related to the improvement in subjective sleep measures and therefore reveal an independent effect within this combined sleep program.”

Analysis of the subjects’ sleep diary data also found that recuperation of sleep and the number of awakenings after falling asleep also improved throughout the program. When surveyed, about 50 percent of the participants stated that physical activity contributed to their improvement.

With this in mind, it’s safe to say that synergizing exercise and sleep together can make a significant difference in your health. After all, more sleep can contribute to improved immunity and focus, as well as a healthy weight, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Not sure how to establish a healthy routine that successfully balances exercise with sleep? For this guide, SleepMoment tapped five pros to break down practical tips for aligning sleep and exercise habits—including recommendations for what time of day to exercise. They also explained how exercise can provide relief to sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and insomnia.

The Interconnectedness of Exercise and Sleep

Exercise and sleep go hand-and-hand, as your body instinctively makes both habits easier for you, says personal trainer and former sleep technician Erica Olivia.

“When you exercise, your body releases hormones that actually give you energy,” Olivia tells SleepMoment.

“On the other hand, once those hormones are released, your body knows that more restorative sleep is needed to heal and repair muscle tissues. Therefore, when you do put your head on the pillow, your brain will automatically help you enter a more restorative sleep stage, and for longer.”

While sleep and exercise complement each other, you should understand the more intricate ways they impact one another. This knowledge will help you harmonize your sleep hygiene and exercise habits.

How Sleep Affects Exercise

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults should aim to get at least seven or more hours of sleep at night. If you continuously sleep fewer hours than recommended, it can have harmful repercussions on your overall health and ability to exercise.

To be more specific, sleeping well improves exercise performance by giving your body a chance to recover, heal, digest, and build muscle, says holistic health and life coach Courtney Ashworth. Lack of shuteye can only hinder this.

A lack of sleep can also negatively impact exercise performance, accuracy, speed, and endurance, says Jill Whalen, ACE-certified personal trainer and senior fitness specialist. Sleep deficiency can lead to quicker exhaustion while working out and only increases susceptibility to injury and illness, she adds.

How Exercise Affects Sleep

Exercise affects sleep quality in several ways. Ashworth explains to SleepMoment that it gives your body a chance to burn off stress and release chemicals (and hormones) that are essential and support a good night’s rest.

Similarly, personal trainer and powerlifting champion Robert S. Herbst explains that because physical activity allows for deeper sleep: “Exercise makes one comfortably fatigued. One sleeps better and more deeply when they are in good health.”

Like the Journal of Sport and Health Science study discussed above, research shows that exercise has improved the lives of those living with chronic sleep conditions. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine also verifies that exercise can improve sleep apnea and that morning and afternoon exercise can be beneficial to those with insomnia.

Perfect Timing

Have you ever wondered what time of day is ideal for exercise? It depends on what type of exercise you participate in. According to Whalen, the earlier you can work in intense exercise, the better.

“Intense exercise causes stress in the body, which increases cortisol, another hormone,” she tells SleepMoment. “Light exercise such as walking (leisurely, not power walking), yoga, stretching, Tai Chi, help to lower cortisol levels, and can be done later with little negative impact to sleep.”

While a grueling spin session may sound like the perfect way to lull you to sleep, exercising too close to bed can disrupt sleep, as bodily cortisol levels can still be too high, Whalen warns.

“Cortisol naturally fluctuates throughout the day, with highest levels in the morning and continually lowering as the day progresses with lowest levels at around 2 a.m.,” she adds. “If exercise is done too close to bedtime, cortisol levels may remain high and disrupt sleep.”

Practical Tips for Aligning Sleep and Exercise Habits

Looking for practical ways you can align sleep and exercise habits? ACE-certified personal trainer Andrew Swasey, says there are three easy ways you can do so:

1. Create a Plan For Daily Movement and Exercise

“Whether you want to do an intense boot camp or a casual walk, make a plan to exercise each day of the week and try to stick to the plan,” Swasey tells SleepMoment.

“Exercisers who stick to a workout plan 80 percent of the time are more likely to see weight loss results than those who don’t.”

2. Establish A Morning And Evening Exercise Routine

“Morning and evening routines are a great way to anchor the start and end of your day, especially when they involve exercise,” Swasey explains.

“Personally, I prefer to go for a short walk outside as part of my morning routine to wake up, while in my evening routine, I prefer to practice yoga and stretching to wind down.”

3. Have A Consistent Wake Up Time And Exercise Time Each Day

“Your circadian rhythm has a significant effect on your overall health, impacting your energy levels and ability to sleep well,” Swasey says.

“When you consistently wake up at the same time each day and have a regularly scheduled exercise time, you are more likely to have a normal functioning circadian rhythm, which is ultimately the key to harmonizing your sleep and exercise.”

Exercising Healthy Habits and Sleep Hygiene

When establishing your daily routine, try to think of sleep and exercise as interdependent. When you build healthy habits in one area, it’s that much easier to improve the other. Getting quality sleep and regular exercise isn’t easy—but if you approach these processes holistically, you can make establishing these routines easier on yourself.