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The Science Behind Sleep and Exercise

Happiness, Health, Sleep

The Science Behind Sleep and Exercise


Imagine dozing off the moment you hit the sack and getting up only when sunlight comes to wake you up. Sounded like a fantasy common to busy life? Yeah, it does to most of us, who often accuse bad sleep for a lethargic day deteriorated further by mood swings. And of course, ever sinking levels of concentration and productivity.


What is meant by a Good Sleep?

Well, there are many check boxes your sleep might have to go through to qualify itself as a Sound Sleep. There should be:

  • No problem falling asleep (you should be able to sleep at the most 20 minutes after hitting hay)
  • Uninterrupted eye shut time of 6-7 hours
  • Normal awakenings in between (normal is 1-2 awakenings in between to pee or re-hydrate)
  • No intermittent awakening to check if doors are locked or tap is off (that’s actually an indicator of stress)
  • Fresh wake up next morning (ideally, without alarm, because your brain wakes up your body when it has had enough of rest)
  • Energetic and positive attitude (this is considered irrelevant by many, but is still, a significant indicator of a good sleep)

Why we cannot sleep well?

It’s a very subjective question with no perfect reason to cite. There can be stress, of course, and even not being tired enough. Sometimes the reason is as silly as addiction to Social Media and improper ambiance of room or as serious as Hyperactivity Disorder.

You might also have come across some people who prefer calling themselves an evening person. They are not glamorising their life at all. It’s because they feel energetic and lively in the time past noon, much like others do in the morning. Well, the culprit here is their disturbed or rather an ill-synchronised Circadian Rhythm (Biological clock). This is similar to the “jet lag” you feel when you fly through Time Zones.

There can also be days when you’ve had a nice dinner but are constantly turning sides in the bed. It could be over eating or bloating or an irritated bowel.

What to do when you can’t sleep well?

First, try to find out the reason why you can’t. If its medical like depression, Hyperactivity Disorder or , consult your doctor. Now, not everybody can tell if its a medical issue or result of your reckless lifestyle. So, you can try exercising or the tips suggested below. If nothing works, book a doctor’s appointment for the very next weekend.

Can exercise help me sleep better?

It certainly can, but will require a little patience from your end.

In a 16-week exercise intervention on patients of chronic insomnia with a sedentary lifestyle, it was concluded that exercise has a positive effect on the quality and time of sleep [1]. The participants followed a 30 minute exercise routine of light aerobics and running 3-4 times a week.

But exercise isn’t a quick fix. I’m saying that because I know you must have missed the 16-week part it took the insomniacs to actually find relief. It didn’t get better immediately.

Can any kind of exercise help me sleep better?

Yes. But the time of day when the workout was done and the intensity with which it was carried out, matters a lot.

There is a reason why most people prefer exercising in morning. Because it wakes every inch of you up instantly and gives you a healthy boost of energy. So, which idiot would wanna waste that energy by tossing and turning in bed at night. Do it in morning and stay energetic all day long. But what about the ‘evening people?’

Another study on relationship between sleep and exercise comes to their respite. It was concluded that those who exercised in afternoon reported poor disruptions in sleep later at night [2]. And surprisingly, it also proved that, exercising in afternoon was in fact better than doing it in morning.

However, scientists are strictly against any form exercising in the night. No matter how light it is.

One study addressed the same relationship but proved it to be true the other way round.

It suggested that, sleep has a better and even more impact on the exercise one would do next day, than impact of exercise on sleep [3]. It was observed that, people who slept fine the night before, enjoyed exercising more than who did not. Such people who could not sleep well, chose lighter exercise, did them distastefully and left early. Also, they suffered from a cranked up mood the whole day.

The possible explanation researchers give is not the change in physical capacity but a change in perception of how hard the exercise  is.

But why isn’t the effect of exercise on sleep immediate?

I understand the effect is quite slow, and that’s certainly not encouraging. After being sleep-deprived for months and years, we do consider ourselves worthy of some instant gratification, right? So, a solution we usually succumb to, is over the counter sedative or tranquilizers. But, those are addictive and not at all healthy in the long run. Hence, avoid!

Anyway, there is a scientific explanation for this slow effect of exercise.

Researchers inform that the brain activity of chronic insomniacs is greatly heightened [4]. So, it takes a significant amount of time to calibrate/re-establish it to the normal level so that a normal sleep architecture could  be facilitated.

So, can diet help me sleep better?

To some extent, it can.

You’ll need to watch what you eat. This means parting ways from high intake of spices, oils, alcohol and caffeine [5]. You can have them once a while, but avoid making them part of your dinner. Herbal tea can be of great help too. You might wanna try Chamomile tea an hour before going to bed. However, I wouldn’t suggest that for pregnant and nursing mothers, people with cardiac and blood pressure problems and those allergic to ragweed. Rest can safely try it.

For further detail on how diet and nutrition helps in better sleep, you might wanna read these two short articles.

  1. How Can I Sleep Without Taking Sleeping Pills?
  2. Can Nutrition Help Sleeping?

Tips to sleep better

  • When in bedroom, do bedroom activities only, no office work, no TV or games
  • Avoid caffeine or tea 3-4 hours before sleeping
  • Maintain a room temperature slightly on the warmer side
  • Make it a point to shower before bed
  • Try to make your room as dark and silent as possible (switch off all kinds of electronics)
  • Make meditation and breathing exercises part of your routine to reduce levels of stress
  • To induce relaxation and enhance sleep quality, use lavender aroma in your area of sleep
  • If you find yourself awake in bed even after 20 minutes of crashing, get up and do some relaxing or eye-tiring activity

I tried to keep it close to theory and practicality both. I’m sure it’ll help. If it doesn’t, you know what to do. Yes, book an appointment with your doctor.

Sleep tight!



[1] Singh NA, Clements KM, Fiatarone MA. A randomized controlled trial of the effect of exercise on sleep. Sleep. 1997 Feb;20(2):95-101. PubMed PMID: 9143068.

[2] Emi Morita, Makoto Imai, Masako Okawa, Tomiyasu Miyaura, and Soichiro Miyazaki. A before and after comparison of the effects of forest walking on the sleep of a community-based sample of people with sleep complaints. Biopsychosoc Med. 2011; 5: 13. Published online 2011 October 14. doi: 10.1186/1751-0759-5-13 PMCID: PMC3216244

[3] Baron KG, Reid KJ, Zee PC. Exercise to improve sleep in insomnia: exploration of the bidirectional effects. J Clin Sleep Med. 2013 Aug 15;9(8):819-24. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.2930. PubMed PMID: 23946713; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3716674.

[4] Eric A. Nofzinger, Daniel J. Buysse, Anne Germain, Julie C. Price, Jean M. Miewald, David J. Kupfer. Functional Neuroimaging Evidence for Hyperarousal in Insomnia. Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:2126-2128. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.11.2126

[5] Peuhkuri K, Sihvola N, Korpela R. Diet promotes sleep duration and quality. Nutr Res. 2012 May;32(5):309-19. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2012.03.009. Epub 2012 Apr 25. Review. PubMed PMID: 22652369.

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