Does Exercise Really Help Your Sleep?

Mollie Eastman Jan 25, 2022

Exercise can help you sleep

Does exercise help you sleep?

The short answer to whether exercise helps you sleep is, it depends. When we dig into the science, though, the longer answer is a resounding, YES!

What Are the Leading Causes of Insomnia?

Several things keep people up at night. Here are just a few:

  • Stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Chronic pain
  • Sleep apnea
  • Digestive problems
  • Certain medications
  • Too much caffeine
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Circadian rhythm disturbances

Read More: Circadian Rhythm and Sleep; Structure, Function, and More

Would you believe me if I said exercise could help with each of those?

How Exercise Can Help You Sleep

Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Have you ever wondered why fitness instructors always seem so darned upbeat? Well, first off, it is their job, but every time they exercise, they're flooding their bodies with endorphins. Endorphins are a feel-good hormone that can help address stress and anxiety in the short term. If you keep at it, the news gets even better. Exercise can rewire the brain, improving depression, stress, and anxiety in the long term.

Chronic Pain

People who suffer from chronic pain are more than three times more likely to experience sleep disorders than people who don't. Since endorphins act as a natural analgesic, exercise can help alleviate minor pain and take the edge off more severe pain. Endorphins react similarly in the body to opioid pain killers, only without the potentially deadly side effects. Whether exercise is addictive or not is up for debate, but as long as you don't overdo it, it's far healthier than heavier pain medications.

Sleep Apnea

One of the first symptoms of sleep apnea is snoring, only not run-of-the-mill snoring. When someone has sleep apnea, their airways become obstructed, and they sometimes gasp for air. Risk factors include, among other things, obesity and heart disease, both of which can be improved by exercise.

Digestive Problems

It's never recommended that you eat a large meal right before bedtime, or that you exercise right after a big meal. Still, if you do, a gentle walk around the neighborhood, yoga, tai chi, or other slow movements can get your digestive system moving. Over the longer term, exercise helps improve your gut bacteria, leading to a healthier digestive system.

Some Medications

Several medications may cause insomnia. If you feel that a medication prevents you from falling asleep, talk to your doctor. They might offer an alternative prescription or suggest that you take it earlier in the day. Please note that individual effects vary.

As for whether exercise can solve medicine-induced insomnia, it depends on what you're taking medicine for. Since exercise can help with mental health issues, cardiovascular health, pain, etc., maybe you can cut back on or eliminate the medication altogether. However, please do not stop taking your medications without your doctor's okay.

Too Much Caffeine

Caffeine can keep you up even if you drink it six hours before bedtime! Of course, exercise isn't going to do much to fix that, other than maybe tire you out, but if you exercise, you might sleep better and need less caffeine.

Restless Leg Syndrome

If restless leg syndrome keeps you up at night, exercise may help. However, be careful not to overdo it and avoid exercising too late in the evening.

Circadian Rhythm

The human body runs on a 24-hour clock called a circadian rhythm. Once nighttime hits, we begin to feel sleepy. When we have jet lag or work nights, our circadian rhythms go out of whack and cause insomnia. Exercise can help reset our circadian rhythms.

Can Exercise Help Occasional Sleepless Nights?

With the possible exception of vigorous exercise right before bed, exercise is shown to help people fall asleep and have better quality sleep.

Citations

Zhao, J. L., Jiang, W. T., Wang, X., Cai, Z. D., Liu, Z. H., & Liu, G. R. (2020). Exercise, brain plasticity, and depression. CNS neuroscience & therapeutics, 26(9), 885–895. View Study

National Sleep Foundation. (2015, March 2). Sleep in America poll finds pain a significant challenge when it comes to Americans' sleep. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 27, 2022. View Resource

Bruce, D. F. (n.d.). Exercise and depression: Endorphins, reducing stress, and more. WebMD. Retrieved March 30, 2022. View Resource

Zhao, J. L., Jiang, W. T., Wang, X., Cai, Z. D., Liu, Z. H., & Liu, G. R. (2020). Exercise, brain plasticity, and depression. CNS neuroscience & therapeutics, 26(9), 885–895. View Study

Mayo Clinic. (2018). Sleep apnea - Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic. View Resource

Zhao, J. L., Jiang, W. T., Wang, X., Cai, Z. D., Liu, Z. H., & Liu, G. R. (2020). Exercise, brain plasticity, and depression. CNS neuroscience & therapeutics, 26(9), 885–895. View Study

Monda, V., Villano, I., Messina, A., Valenzano, A., Esposito, T., Moscatelli, F., Viggiano, A., Cibelli, G., Chieffi, S., Monda, M., & Messina, G. (2017). Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2017, 3831972. View Study