Evening exercise and sleep: should we be changing our advice?

Sleep Matters Team Blog, insomnia, insomnia treatment, sleep tips, sleep tips

Many of us are interested in improving our health and wellbeing. Sleep is a great way to do this was we know that sleep is the third pillar of health alongside physical activity and nutrition. A very common piece of advice for improving sleep is to avoid moderate-vigorous exercise before bedtime. Many official ‘Sleep Hygiene’ Guidelines suggest no exercise after mid-afternoon, and certainly not within about 3 hours of nighttime sleep. This advice can put sleep and exercise in competition with one another, should I sleep or should I exercise?

The existing sleep hygiene advice is that moderate-vigorous exercise increases physiological arousal and core body temperature, which is the opposite of what we want for a restful sleep.

Recent research, however, is building a case that means we might need to rethink this advice. The newest data is suggesting that evening exercise does not interfere with sleep and may even improve it.

For example, a study that looked at a huge 150,000 nights of sleep and exercise data, found that exercising before bed had little impact on sleep. The average age of the 12,000 adults in the study was 40 (range 18-60). Participants wore devices that measured their sleep and physical activity for 2 weeks. The data suggested that thirty minutes or more of moderate-to-near maximal physical activity during the 3 hours before sleep onset had almost no impact on sleep (time taken to fall asleep, and sleep quality). Interestingly, there was a very small effect of exercise within 3 hours of bedtime improving sleep, with a few more minutes sleep being gained on exercise nights. How do we reconcile this new finding? As the authors note, there is an increase in body temperature during physical activity, and when this falls in the hours following exercise, this can facilitate sleep. It is well documented that falling body temperature can assist sleep and this is the reason why a warm bath is often recommended before bed.

See here for the full research paper: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2021.772376/full

In another study published in Sports Medicine, researchers reviewed data from 23 studies that explored the relationship between exercise and sleep quality. They compared healthy adults who engaged in a single session of evening exercise compared with adults who did not. Findings suggested that evening exercise may have had a slight beneficial effect on sleep (falling asleep a little faster and sleeping a little deeper). This was true for all but those who exercised vigorously less than one hour before bedtime; these people had a slightly harder time falling asleep.

Research still needs to look at whether this new advice applies to individuals with sleep disorders or health conditions. It’s also important to note that research applies to people in general, and may not apply to every individual. As a general rule, however, it appears that there may be little cause for concern about exercising in the evening. Perhaps we can keep exercising, at any time of the day, on the list of things we can do to support our health and wellbeing. How nice to think we can sleep and exercise, without needing to choose one over the other.

Of course,

If you’d like support with improving your sleep, we’d be happy to hear from you, contact the Sleep Matters team on 6107 6828.

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