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Everything you need to know about working out to fall asleep faster

Jul 10, 2022

Exercise and sleep: two things many of us aren’t getting enough of.

Both exercise and sleep play crucial roles in maintaining our overall physical and cognitive health. But they don’t exist in our lives independently. If you find yourself constantly not sleeping well, you’re much less likely to feel like you have the energy for a workout. But did you know exercise can actually improve your sleep?

Let’s take a look at the relationship between physical activity and sleep, and examine the science behind using exercise to rest better.

The relationship between physical activity and sleep

Staying active plays a key role in our physical and mental health. But did you know it can also impact the quality of our sleep?

The changes that happen within our bodies when we exercise can directly benefit our natural sleep-wake cycle, reduce stress and other factors that keep you awake at night, and improve overall sleep quality. Here’s a look at the science behind using exercise to rest well.

How can exercise improve my sleep?

  1. Exercise can help calibrate your internal clock. We all operate on a natural sleep-wake cycle dictated by our circadian rhythm. The serotonin released during physical activity helps promote a healthy sleep-wake cycle, making us feel awake and refreshed during the day and tired at night. You can also increase the benefit if you exercise outside during the day; soaking in the sun helps your body “tune up” its internal clock, differentiating between daylight (waking) and nighttime (sleeping) hours. In other words, exercise can help your body naturally shift towards “sleep mode,” meaning less time spent lying awake because you don’t feel tired enough to sleep.
  2. Exercise can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. People suffering from anxiety and depression often find it difficult to sleep, as stress and intrusive thoughts keep them awake. Exercise can help mitigate these symptoms because it releases endorphins, which reduce stress, alleviate pain, and improve our mood. So if you often find it difficult to let go of anxious thoughts, or you feel too tense to fall asleep, exercise can help make you feel more relaxed and ready to rest.
  3. Exercise changes your core body temperature. Your body temperature plays an important role in falling asleep, staying asleep, and resting well. During physical activity, your body temperature increases, and drops after you finish exercising. A similar drop in core body temperature occurs naturally when you get ready to fall asleep. So, by exercising later in the day, you can actually manipulate your body temperature in a way that signals your brain it’s time to sleep.
  4. Exercise can help prevent medical conditions that may keep you awake. Physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of sleep problems like insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome. And of course, it also helps manage body weight, which is important since people who are overweight are more likely to report difficulty sleeping. Exercise isn’t a cure-all or full preventative for these conditions, but it can definitely help.
  5. Exercise takes up energy. This one is simple enough: to fall asleep, you need to feel tired. Exercise can help you expel excess energy that might otherwise keep you awake, tossing and turning in bed. If you often find yourself feeling physically restless when you lie down to sleep, getting more exercise might be the answer. Just be careful not to overdo it - pushing your body too hard can leave you so fatigued that you feel “too tired to sleep.”
  6. Exercise can improve sleep quality. Finally, besides making it easier to actually fall asleep, exercise may improve the overall quality of your sleep. Research suggests physical activity helps promote slow-wave sleep. This crucial sleep stage puts our bodies in “recovery mode” as our brain waves slow down, giving us the chance to recover from the stress of our waking hours. 

As you can see, the science behind exercise aligns with improving sleep in quite a few ways. Whether you’re expelling restless energy, banishing stress and anxiety, or just trying to ensure you feel tired enough to fall asleep, exercise can have a huge impact on your sleep quality.

 As you can see, the science behind exercise aligns with improving sleep in quite a few ways. Whether you’re expelling restless energy, banishing stress and anxiety, or just trying to ensure you feel tired enough to fall asleep, exercise can have a huge impact on your sleep quality.

The best exercise for sleep

So, now that you know all about the relationship between physical activity and sleep, what kind of exercise should you try to rest better? Here are three popular options.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise - aka cardio - is physical activity which makes your heart beat faster and promotes rapid breathing. Examples of aerobic exercise include running or jogging, swimming laps, bike riding, and physically demanding sports like basketball or soccer.

Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can improve overall sleep quality, as well as reduce feelings of drowsiness during the day.

Resistance exercise

Resistance exercise - aka strength training - is physical activity focused on building muscle strength. Examples of resistance exercise include weightlifting, push-ups, sit-ups, and working out using resistance bands.

While most sleep-exercise research has focused on the benefits of aerobic exercise, resistance training yields many of the same effects on our bodies, including the release of endorphins and the change in our core body temperature. So, regular resistance exercises can also improve your overall sleep quality.


Yoga is a specific form of resistance training that combines posture improvement, breathing exercises, and meditation. Breath control and muscle tension both play roles in allowing us to drift off to sleep, which is one reason people who regularly practice yoga may see an overall improvement in their quality of sleep. Yoga has also been shown to help alleviate stress - another common component of sleepless nights.

While further research into the effectiveness of yoga as a sleep aid needs to be conducted for the general population, studies have already noted sleep improvements for specific groups, including women with sleep problems, women with Type 2 diabetes, and the elderly.

Now that you understand how exercise can benefit sleep, let’s address questions you might have about exercise and sleep.

Frequently Asked Questions: Exercise and Sleep

How much exercise do I need to improve my sleep?

Most studies indicate that just 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day can improve the quality of your sleep. Working out at higher intensities or for longer periods may also increase the benefits to your sleep, but it’s not a never-ending escalator ride of “more exercise = better sleep.” (Remember, overexerting yourself can actually keep you from falling asleep!) In other words, you don’t have to start training for a marathon just to get a good night’s sleep.

You can see the benefits of exercise on your sleep the very same day you first get active. While regular exercise is a good habit for your overall health, you probably won’t have to workout every day for months before you start to notice a difference in your sleep quality.

Remember, small amounts of physical activity are better than none at all. One survey of US adults found that people who exercised in any capacity were a third less likely to report sleep problems, and half as likely to report daytime drowsiness. So even if you can’t manage 30 minutes of moderate exercise, get moving a little at a time to start stepping towards better sleep.

What time of day is best to exercise to improve my sleep? Will exercising at night keep me awake?

Generally speaking, exercise isn’t going to keep you awake at night - good news for anyone who prefers to get their workout in after dark! However, exercise does tend to make us feel energized for a brief period after the physical activity ends. (That’s due to the release of endorphins.) So while you can stick to your nightly workout routine, it’s best to complete it  at least 90 minutes before you plan to go to sleep.

That said, there isn’t really one time of day that’s best to exercise to improve your sleep. As we mentioned earlier, completing physical activity at different times of the day may come with different benefits. (An outdoor workout during the day can provide sun exposure which helps regulate your circadian rhythm, whereas a night workout could help drop your core body temperature in a way that prepares your body to transition to sleep.)

What’s most important is that you get moving - so feel free to make time for your exercise routine at the time of day which works best for your schedule.

What’s more important - an extra hour of sleep or waking up early to exercise?

Sleep and exercise are both incredibly important for our physical well-being and our cognitive health. But we all have busy lives, and sometimes it seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything we want to do. So if you find yourself pressed for time, should you score an extra hour of sleep, or drag yourself out of bed early to commit to your fitness routine?

Well, if you’re consistently getting the recommended amount of sleep (7.5 hours a night for adults), set your alarm early and go to the gym. But if you frequently sleep less than six hours a night, it’s probably best to grab an extra hour of sleep. (Sleep deprivation can have a lot of side effects on our physical and mental health.)

Remember, getting enough sleep and physical activity are important for your health. If you’re having trouble making enough time for exercise, see what alternative options you can work into your schedule. For example, instead of an hour of moderate intensity exercise, you might consider 15 minutes of high intensity exercise. You can also make small adjustments to your daily habits that encourage you to be more active, like choosing the stairs over the elevator, or parking further away from the entrance at the grocery store.

If exercising can improve my sleep quality, does not exercising make my sleep worse?

You should also know that exercise and sleep have a bidirectional relationship - that is to say, they influence one another. While physical activity can help promote better sleep, the opposite is also true: poor sleep often results in lower levels of physical activity. It makes sense; you probably won’t feel as inclined to go for a run if you didn’t get the chance to recharge with some restful sleep the night before.

But this can leave you trapped in a cycle of poor sleep - less physical activity - more poor sleep. Bottom line? Even if you’re feeling tired, it might still be worth it to go for that run after all.

Get active. Then, get to sleep.

Besides its numerous benefits to our physical and mental health, exercise can play a key role in our sleep health as well. Becoming active can make it easier for you to fall asleep at night, and may improve the quality of your sleep once you drift off, too. Just 30 minutes of activity can make a difference. When you make time for exercise, you make time for better sleep.

Want to learn more about how sleep and exercise affect your cognitive health?

If you want to learn more about the relationship between sleep and our brain, and how you can improve the quality of your sleep today, check out My RBI Academy. We’ll send you new tips and tricks for improving your cognitive health, all backed by our years of medical expertise and grounded in our holistic six pillar approach.


Learn more about My RBI Academy