How Does Exercise Affect Sleep?
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2023
Could something as simple as more exercise be the elixir that cures your sleep disorder? Chances are no, more exercise will not cure your insomnia. However, regular physical activity does improve sleep for most people.
How exercise helps with sleep
For most people, regular exercise helps with sleep. There are several reasons for this:1,2
- Exercise raises body temperature. When you cool back down, it can make you feel sleepier, which can help you fall asleep.
- Outdoor exercise exposes you to sunlight. This helps your body keep its sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythms).
- Another theory is that exercise requires the body to use up energy and muscle. These then need to be restored during sleep.
The relationship between exercise and sleep is complicated. A 2013 study asked a group of women to exercise for 30 minutes, 3 times a week. The doctors found that it took several weeks of regular exercise for the women’s sleep to improve. After 4 months, the women were getting 1 hour and 15 minutes more sleep than before. They also found that a lack of sleep had an immediate impact on how much exercise the women got the next day.3
How exercise impacts sleep disorders
Exercise may be even more important if you have a sleep disorder. However, how exercise impacts your sleep can depend on which type of sleep disorder you have.
For people with insomnia, exercise helps reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, improves sleep quality, and reduces depression and anxiety. A 2010 study looked at adults 55 and older with insomnia who did not exercise regularly. The people who began exercising for 30 minutes, 3 to 4 times a week, slept longer and reported more restful sleep, improved mood, and better quality of life.4,5
For people with sleep apnea, exercise can lead to weight loss, which often improves sleep quality. In fact, the link between obesity and sleep apnea is so strong that weight loss is often one of the first treatments doctors recommend. Studies have found that even losing a few pounds can reduce the severity of sleep apnea. And, exercise can improve sleep apnea, even without weight loss.6
For people with narcolepsy, being overweight or obese is common. This may be because the brain changes that cause narcolepsy also slow metabolism. Regular exercise can lower blood pressure and reduce weight, both of which can improve the overall health of someone with narcolepsy.7
Restless legs syndrome
For people with restless legs syndrome (RLS), studies show a clear connection between more exercise, reduced RLS symptoms, and better sleep. Doctors are not sure why exercise helps reduce RLS symptoms. However, both scientific studies and personal reports show that exercise helps reduce leg twitches, pain, and crawly sensations.8
In general, people with sleep disorders tend to be overweight or obese, for complex reasons that doctors do not completely understand. They do know that exercise improves heart health and mood, and helps you lose weight or keep weight in check, which are always good outcomes.8
That said, many studies show that how well exercise improves sleep can be different for younger people, people who are already fit, or people with additional health conditions.9
How much exercise do you need to sleep better?
In general, doctors recommend you get 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week. This could be things like:10
Federal guidance also suggests you do strength training twice or more each week. This kind of exercise uses weight or resistance. You can start low with a single repetition (rep). Once you can do 12 to 15 of the same exercise without tiring, you can increase the weight or resistance.10
But even a few minutes of aerobic exercise is good for your health. Start with a 5- or 10-minute walk if you need to. It adds up quickly! And according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, if you do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise in a day, you could be sleeping better that night.1,10
When should you exercise to sleep better?
Any time of day is good. Just make sure to give your body enough time to cool down. How long that is depends on you and the way your body works. A good general rule is 30 to 90 minutes.1
It used to be that evening exercise was not recommended. But now doctors say low-intensity exercises are OK in the evening. Examples include gentle yoga and stretching.1,10
Exercise also causes the body to release endorphins, those brain chemicals that make you feel better. Endorphins also energize you, so exercising at least 1 to 2 hours before bedtime allows the brain time to process the endorphins exercise releases.11