(Why I Work Out)

Trouble Sleeping? This Small Change To Your Workout Routine Could Fix That

Timing is everything.

by Natalia Lusinski
Photo by Polonina/Stocksy

It’s happening again: You’re staring at the ceiling, wide awake in the middle of the night. You have insomnia. You heard you can maximize your workouts for improved sleep, which people with various sleep disorders sometimes try. But why isn’t it working for you? Well, according to Helen Kollias, Ph.D., science advisor for Precision Nutrition, there is no fitness-for-better-sleep strategy that will work for everybody.

“In general, exercising regularly helps normalize circadian rhythms, tone down the sympathetic nervous system, and regulate endocrine function,” she explains in an email to TZR. She recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise — where you can still talk without much difficulty during the exercise — daily for optimum sleep and health. She suggests doing so about four to six hours before bed so you don’t get too revved up before lying down for the night.

However, the best thing to do is talk to your doctor and ask to get referred to a sleep clinic or sleep specialist, Kollias explains. “You can also get help from a sleep coach to implement basic techniques and any recommendations by the sleep specialist,” she says. A sleep coach can work with you to develop practices that improve sleep quality and quantity. In the meantime, though, you can maximize your workouts so you’ll get more quality zzz’s at night — or at least try. Ahead, sleep doctors and fitness experts share their best tips for doing so.


How Much Exercise To Get Per Day To Help Your Sleep Quality Later

Haley Perlus, Ph.D., a sports and performance psychology expert, says you should engage in about 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day to see a difference in your sleep quality. “Exercising every day can increase sleep quality and decrease the amount of time you lie in bed awake,” she tells TZR in an email. But, like Kollias, Perlus warns not to exercise too close to your desired bedtime. “Aerobic exercises cause the body to release endorphins, which can cause you to stay awake,” she explains. Plus, exercise increases your body’s core temperature, she says, and the elevation can signal your body clock, telling you it’s time to be awake. It takes about half an hour to an hour and a half to fall back to normal and eventually facilitate sleepiness. “However, everyone’s body is different, and for some, they may not notice a difference in their chosen time of day to exercise,” she adds. “Therefore, it’s essential to listen to your body and figure out what works best for you and your sleep schedule.”

Types Of Exercises To Do

Like Kollias, Perlus states that any regular aerobic exercise for a prolonged period can improve your sleep quality and reduce any excessive daytime sleepiness. “Aerobic exercises are measured by intensity,” she says. “Moderate-intensity aerobic exercises increase your heart rate and make you sweat, such as a long walk or water aerobics. These exercises are enough to decrease the severity of sleep-disordered breathing conditions, such as obstructive sleep apnea.”

Dr. Peter Polos, M.D., Ph.D., sleep medicine specialist and sleep expert for Sleep Number, has some ideas, too. “There are a few things we often recommend to patients in the sleep clinic,” he says. “A mild cardio workout, yoga, and stretching routines are forms of exercise that are often used to promote sleep. However, because sleep is so personalized and individual needs and responses vary, it’s hard to have a one-exercise-fits-all approach.” He adds that if the exercise goal is simply to promote sleep, a general recommendation is 30 to 40 minutes of mild cardio, yoga, stretching, or light weights to accomplish the goal. “That said, the amount of exercise is just as important as the timing of it,” he says.


Jenny Lee, founder of BabyToBarbell.com, is also a physical therapist and women’s health fitness expert. She says there are three main types of exercises that have been shown to help sleep: aerobic, resistance, and stretching. “With aerobic, exercises like cycling, jogging, and swimming greatly improve sleep,” she tells TZR in an email. “Research shows this type of exercise increases serotonin production in the brain and reduces levels of cortisol, decreasing stress and improving sleep.” Resistance types of workouts can include weights, resistance bands, push-ups, and the like, Lee says. “In some populations, such as menopausal women, resistance exercise has shown greater improvements to sleep quality than aerobic,” she says. And stretching is the third type of exercise Lee recommends. “Using yoga, or combinations of stretching and meditation, has been shown to greatly benefit sleep,” she says. “All exercise, especially yoga and meditation, has also been shown to greatly reduce depression and anxiety, which further helps with quality of sleep.”

Since the type of exercise you do to help you sleep varies from person to person, Lee says she usually tells patients to experiment with different methods and intensities. For example, someone can try a combination of aerobic and resistance exercises. “I also suggest they experiment with the time of day that they exercise,” she says. “For some, exercising in the evening provides the greatest benefit, and for others, exercising midday is the best. But if sleep problems persist, I advise them to talk to their doctor. These days, there is a lot that can be done for sleep deprivation and insomnia, and the industry is always coming out with new and exciting research that can be used to help patients find a good night’s sleep.”

Genetics, Your Energy Level, & Sleep

Thom Manning is a performance coach at Future, an app that pairs you with a world-class fitness coach who manages your ongoing fitness remotely. He believes that how much exercise you need can depend on your unique circadian rhythm, which controls many other processes, like when we sleep and eat. “According to research, your genetics play a role here,” he tells TZR in an email. “There are four different chronotypes, and identifying yours can help you understand the best time for you to sleep, wake up, eat, and work out. If you understand how your energy fluctuates throughout the day based on your chronotype, you can make sure to work out when your energy is high and least likely to impact your bedtime.” He says you can determine your chronotype easily by completing an MEQ, or Morningness–Eveningness Questionnaire (which can be completed online in about five minutes). “I have clients who like to work out before the sun rises and others who would rather get their workouts in after midnight,” he says. “Both have made progress toward their goals by exercising consistently at a time of day that feels best to them.”

When it comes to choosing a workout, make sure it has you thinking, “After this workout, I'm going to sleep like a baby,” he says. “This might look different for everyone. The best exercise for you is the exercise that you look forward to doing consistently! Maybe you are most consistent when you stick to yoga, or maybe your routine is stronger when you incorporate running, Pilates, and strength training each week. If you look forward to your workouts and make time for them in your schedule, you'll be more likely to feel that your routine is positively affecting your sleep.” He adds that continuous changes to an exercise routine can have a negative impact on sleep in the short term. “Thankfully, as an exercise routine becomes consistent, it will be less likely to disrupt your internal rhythms,” he says.