Did you know that the timing of your workout may positively or negatively impact your sleep? There are two main reasons you may be interested in knowing more. Either you’re training for something like a race or competition AND you’re not sleeping well. Or you really want to optimize your sleep and are curious to see if shifting the timing of your workout could help.
Regardless of which category you fall into, you’ve probably noticed that you sleep better when you’re working out on a consistent basis. This is because sleep and exercise have a cyclical relationship. Typically, when you work out, you sleep better, and when you sleep better, you have more of an interest in working out. The same is true if you’re not working out, which results in you not sleeping as well and sitting on the couch eating chips while everyone is posting the results of their gym sessions on social media.
Researchers unanimously agree that movement is good for sleep, but when you move is an interesting factor to consider. So in this article, we’ll dig deeper into the relationship between the quality of your sleep and the timing of your workouts.
Does the Timing of Your Workouts Really Matter?
The biggest question people have with exercise timing and sleep is whether there are differences between working out in the morning, afternoon and evening. And the short answer is yes. The timing of your workouts does matter when it comes to your sleep, which is helpful to know if you’re a serious or competitive athlete. Yet not everyone is going to follow the same plan because it matters who you are as an individual, as well as your lifestyle and your goals.
So first up is the morning workout for those early birds out there. If you’re someone who never presses snooze then you’re in for a treat. Research shows that getting aerobic exercise first thing in your day may actually promote deeper, high-quality sleep at night. It’s been shown that people who work out in the morning experience a greater drop of blood pressure at night, which will improve their time in deep sleep. Morning exercisers also fall asleep on average of 11 minutes faster compared to people who work out in the afternoon and 21 minutes faster than people who work out in the evening.
However, morning workouts are only healthy IF you’re getting 7-9 hours of high-quality restful sleep. According to a study conducted by Australian Institute of Sport on swimmers preparing for the 2008 Olympics; early-morning training sessions actually restricted the amount of sleep obtained by the athletes because they didn’t go to sleep any earlier. Since chronic sleep restriction of less than 6 hours per night can impair psychological and physiological functioning, it is possible that early-morning schedules actually limit the effectiveness of training.
Another thing to be cautious of is that your muscles aren’t as warmed up or efficient in the morning and you’re more prone to injury. This means you’ll need to spend extra time warming up before diving into an intense workout. When push comes to shove, you should always prioritize sleep over working out. This is because the accumulation of sleep debt will only become more destructive to your health, fitness and well-being over time, and working out is not the solution.
The truth is, your body benefits more from sleep than any single workout could provide. So, the rule of thumb is if you haven’t been sleeping well for a few nights and you’re getting less than 8 hours, then choose that extra hour of sleep over a workout. You’ll also probably save yourself a preventable injury and feeling extra crabby at work.
It should also go without saying, if you were up late the night before or have pulled an all-nighter, you 100% need to get rest and not wake up early to place intense physical demands on your body. In general, the words to live by if you’re ever wondering if you should sleep or not? When it doubt, sleep it out. However, if you’ve been sleeping great for the past few nights, you’re getting around 8 hours, then by all means, get up and watch the sunrise for your workout or run.
Now for my friends out there who just love that snooze button, working out in the morning may not be enjoyable enough to make it a sustainable habit unless they’re able to shift their circadian rhythm and get to bed earlier, which is a topic for another video. So for this reason, you may opt for an afternoon workout between the hours of say, 1 and 5pm.
Now you may be saying, but Kelly, the afternoon is when my energy is lowest and all I want to do is run away from work and take a nap. Okay, I hear you and the afternoon energy slump is completely normal and is actually part of the natural dips in our circadian rhythm. That said, it’s also a good time to work out both from a physiological standpoint as well as to ensure you have enough time for a healthy nightly routine.
You may have heard in the past that your internal body temperature plays a role in how well you’ll sleep, which is true. Yet it also plays a role in how well you work out. This is why rolling out of bed and working out with cold muscles isn’t ideal and why snooze button lovers are not at a total disadvantage.
Our body’s ability to regulate its own temperature is called thermoregulation and it changes throughout the day. At 5 am, your body temp is lowest at 96.4 degrees. Around 9 am, you’ve reached 97.8 degrees and by late afternoon, you’re somewhere between 99 and 100.4 degrees. Experts recognize that a higher internal body temperature results in more alertness, better memory and improved reaction times, which is why working out in the afternoon is an excellent choice, especially if the workout is intense or requires endurance.
Although we like the fact that working out in the afternoon is better for your workout, the question remains: is working out in the afternoon beneficial for your sleep? As of right now, there’s no compelling research that says working out in the afternoon improves your sleep, but it also doesn’t do any damage to your sleep either. One way it may indirectly improve your sleep is by giving you ample time to eat dinner, socialize and wind down at night. Many people who push their workouts too late into the evening find that they don’t have enough time to fit it all in and end up compromising something, usually their sleep, which is a big no no.
You may have heard in the past that working out at night can negatively affect your sleep because it raises your core body temperature, increases your heart rate and releases adrenaline. Now it is true that a cooler core body temperature and lower heart rate are associated with healthy sleep, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that exercising at night is bad. In a 2018 study, researchers found that working out at night may improve your rest by helping you get into deep sleep or slow wave sleep faster and stay there longer, which is the stage that helps with tissue and muscle regeneration. The study suggests that by raising your body temperature before bed, you’re actually helping to cool your body down because of the way thermoregulation works.
Similar to when you get out of a warm bath, exercise raises your body’s temperature initially and then allows it to cool off through sweat evaporation on the skin. This cooling off process is relaxing and helps prepare your body for sleep. The one exception is if you engage in really vigorous exercise, like sprints or HIIT within an hour of bedtime, which is stimulating to the brain and releases hormones that keep you alert. Now in addition to peer-reviewed research, I know it can be helpful to hear what real people have to say.
So here it is! In a National Sleep Foundation poll, over 1,000 regular people indicated that exercise improved their sleep no matter what time of day it was. And those who said they consistently exercise before bed said they always sleep better than when they don’t exercise at all. For general best practices of working out at night, do it an hour before bed and be sure you have enough time to lower your heart rate and calm any remaining endorphins through stretching, foam rolling and a calm routine.
The Bottom Line
Okay so what’s the verdict here?! At the end of the day, there are compelling reasons to work out in the morning, afternoon and evening. People who work out in the morning may fall asleep faster, those in the afternoon are more energized and have time to wind down, and people who work out at night may experience more deep sleep.
The bottom line is, when it comes to your sleep, the best time to work out is the period that you’ll stick to consistently. As the poll confirmed, working out at any time is better for your sleep than not working out at all, and our body thrives on consistency. The best time should be one that works with your schedule and preferred exercise type, while still saving time for you to have an evening and morning routine and getting 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
If you’re unsure when this time is for you, ask yourself, “am I a morning or a night person?” And if you really don’t know which time is best for you or you’re a curious, data-driven person, try experimenting with different work out times. Get a wearable device and start tracking your exercise and your sleep. For one week, try working out in the morning, another week in the afternoon and another week at night. At the end of 3 weeks, see which one gives you the highest sleep score and stick with it.
For my final tip, if you’re struggling to find the time to work out and get 7-9 hours of sleep, then you should rethink your schedule altogether. Both exercise and sleep are essential to performing your best and with the right approach to your daily schedule, you can make them both happen.
Kelly is a Performance Sleep Coach who works with athletes, entrepreneurs, and people looking to optimize their rest for ultimate energy and recovery. With a background in holistic health and wellness, she blends ancient principles with modern sleep science to help her clients overcome insomnia, daytime fatigue, and disturbed sleep.