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Sleep or exercise? How to decide whether to do a workout or snooze when you’re tired

Posted by for Wellbeing

Have a lie in or hit the gym? The answer might surprise you… 

We don’t have to tell you how important a good night’s sleep is for your mood, digestion, stress levels and workout routine. And you probably also know that exercise has huge benefits for your mental health and can make you feel more energised. So when your alarm goes off at 6AM, how do you choose pick between rolling out of bed or hitting snooze?

Knowing what our body needs most can be challenging. When it comes to energy levels, there are so many things that can effect how we feel. “The more we start to listen to our body, the more we will be able to discern between being tired because I need to eat something or I need to drink some more water or I need to move or I actually need to sleep,” says sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan.  

“I think we need to start thinking more expansively about what nourishes our energy. It isn’t a straightforward answer, but I personally know that sleep is the issue when my mood is affected and I get grumpy. I start to notice tiredness around my eyes and head fogginess. But sometimes I can get tiredness caused by low blood sugar, or simply needing to get out and move more or from being on Zoom and Teams too much.”

Understanding your sleep pattern is the key to figuring out what your body really needs, she says. “The sleep that you get from 5 am onwards, from an energy perspective, is of limited value. Certainly, a lie-in is lovely at the weekends, but otherwise, you’re probably better off getting up early and getting in some exercise,” Dr Ramlakhan explains. “There’s an intelligence built into the design of our sleep – we sleep in 90-minute cycles and each cycle seems to repair the body in a different way.” 

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According to Dr Ramlakhan, Eastern studies show that the sleep we get pre-midnight and the sleep we get between 2-4 am are the most crucial hours for restoration. Outside of this, power naps are where it’s at for energy-boosting sleep. “In countries like Japan and China, which are renowned for their productivity, people nap at work in the afternoon. The science shows, from a chronobiology perspective, a 20-minute nap can significantly improve your mental and cognitive performance.”

So, does that mean we should all be jumping out of bed with the sunrise for a morning marathon? Not so much. Regular exercise has been shown to increase energy by 20% while decreasing fatigue by as much as 65%, according to a study from the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics – mainly due to improvements in how the body carries oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. 

But the most important thing is that we are moving, rather than overdoing it. “Get away from this formal notion of exercise that you need to run for an hour or go to the gym and use every piece of equipment. Instead, just focus on walking, moving around, shaking your energy up. You will notice that you start to feel better and sleep better,” says Dr Ramlakhan.  

It is also crucial to remember that we need time and sleep in order to recover from the tougher workouts that we do. “If you’re starting to feel run down, are struggling to recover from exercise, have joint pain or cold sores, that could be a sign that your immune system is struggling, and I’d say maybe you shouldn’t be exercising,” reminds Dr Ramlakhan.

But most importantly, we need to learn to tune in to ourselves. “I can’t help but relate this to the fact that this has been such a challenging year for us on so many levels. I think the one thing that we need to do is to start becoming more self-aware because there are so many people who went into the pandemic burnt out not realising it,” Dr Ramlakhan says. So, while an early wake-up call and a nap might work for long-term energy levels, there’s also no shame in taking time to catch up on sleep after a restless weekend. 

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Unsplash/Getty

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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).