Sleep. It’s a precious commodity, and one of the pillars of health and wellness. But for about one-third of Canadians, sleep doesn’t come easily, which makes everyday tasks, including exercise, that much harder to enjoy.
Yet despite the seeming contradiction in using exercise to battle fatigue, working up a sweat is often suggested as a first line of defence for those who have trouble sleeping. Several studies have shown that regular physical activity improves sleep habits, including reducing the time it takes to get to sleep, increasing total time spent sleeping and improving sleep efficiency (the percentage of time spent asleep while in bed). Even a single bout of exercise has proved to have a positive effect on quantity and quality of sleep.
Sleep experts aren’t sure why exercise helps, but the most common theory is that a post-workout drop in body temperature induces drowsiness. There’s also the theory that exercise’s positive effects on mood, stress and the body’s circadian rhythms make it easier to get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
But it’s not all good news. Fitness enthusiasts have long complained of struggling to wind down after an evening workout, making it harder to get to sleep. And whether it’s due to the stimulating effect of exercise, residual muscle soreness, elevated heart rate or body temperature, evening exercise has a reputation for spoiling a good night’s sleep.
Despite these complaints, studies measuring the effects of late-night exercise on sleep haven’t been definitive. Part of the problem is the variability in study design, which makes it difficult to compare results. Some use subjects with pre-existing sleep problems, while others measure the effects of exercise on otherwise good sleepers. Many also fail to address the difference that variables like exercise intensity and duration may have on sleep.
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