A woman sleeping

Exercise and sleep: how working out can help you sleep better, according to a doctor

Posted by for Strength

We all feel awful after a bad night’s sleep, so the news that nearly two-thirds of people in the UK have experienced worse sleep than usual since lockdown, according to Kings College London, is extremely worrying. But it’s not exactly surprising, and researchers put our sleep deprivation down to the fact that our stress levels are through the roof – we’re overwhelmed with the virus, our new employment situations and not being able to see loved ones. 

If you’re feeling tired and stressed, the last thing you might feel like doing is a high energy workout. But, along with many other mental health benefits, exercise could be the solution to the sleep problem – and not just because you need a lie down afterwards. 

“Physical movement can help us produce the chemical adenosine, which promotes sleepiness and enables melatonin to work more effectively,” explains sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, author of Tired But Wired. “The build-up in the levels of adenosine is the catalyst to stop adrenaline, and other stimulating hormones, being produced and initiates the biochemical changes necessary for sleep.” 

Woman exercising
How exercise can help you sleep

Fear not: that doesn’t mean you should be throwing yourself into an intense HIIT session on your well-deserved rest day just so you can get to sleep at night. “You don’t have to do huge amounts of intense activity to reap the benefits – just moving every hour or so throughout the day is beneficial,” says Dr Ramlakhan.

“But Dr, what about the fact that I can’t sleep after a workout?” I hear you ask. While a study did find that only high-intensity activity an hour before bed would impact your ability to sleep, there might be another reason for why your evening exercise habit is causing sleep disruption.

Naturally, your blood pressure should lower by up to 20% at night time. However, immediately after a workout your blood pressure can rise, which can make it hard to wind down. Exercising early in the day, on the other hand, “helps to lower the levels of the stress hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol – which then has an anti-hypertensive (blood pressure lowering) effect,” explains Dr Nerina.

“The production of endorphins during and post-exercise also produces a feel-good factor which can have the additional effect of lowering blood pressure,” she says.

And let’s not forget that the sleep-exercise relationship works both ways: the magic from your workout actually happens when you sleep, as it’s during the night that muscles recover and rebuild stronger. In fact, studies show that a lack of sleep actually results in muscle loss

Excuse us, we’re off to snooze.

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).