A good night's sleep is the holy grail. It can make or break an interview or an exam. An uninterrupted night's sleep is a distant, sweet dream for new mums. Senior business execs are at their sharpest when they have a good sleep routine. Athletes swear by a 9pm bedtime before a competition. We all need sleep to function and we all know that late night snacking and our screen habits can play havoc with our sleep. But did you know that exercise can positively OR negatively affect your beauty sleep, too?
Our circadian rhythm, our inner body clock that tells us when to wake and sleep, is triggered by external factors, primarily light exposure. When your circadian rhythm is thrown off its course, from shift work or travelling across time zones, it has a significant impact on your hormones, metabolism and digestive system. At best, it can make us feel a little off kilter, at worst, it can lead to chronic fatigue, weight gain or exacerbate hormone-related issues like PMS and menopause symptoms. There is no wonder why we are told to keep a regular sleep routine, i.e. going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time, to keep our circadian rhythm in check. Staying active during the day promotes sleep; the question is -- WHEN do you exercise for a restful night's sleep that makes you wake up rested and raring to go?
Whilst the ideal timing of exercise is a hot topic and the jury is still out, research points to the fact that exercising too late at night can negatively affect your sleep quality. Though it all depends on which type of exercise you are doing. When you exercise, we release endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, giving you that feel-good feeling, which is great for lowering stress hormones like cortisol and improves mental wellbeing. However, endorphins also makes you alert and awake, which is great earlier in the day, less so if you get your 'runner's high' at 10pm. The body sees exercise as a type of stress on the body, so we naturally see cortisol levels increase somewhat to give us energy to exercise -- a short-term increase that should dip back to normal levels. Certain types of exercises, like HIIT or a fast paced run, may keep your cortisol levels at an increased level for longer, leaving you wired and far from ready to crawl into bed. Doing a slower-paced yoga routine, a mindful breathwork or meditation session however, is a great end to the day. Not only does would you encourage production of the sleep hormone melatonin, but you also get an opportunity to wind down and put any niggling thoughts or a long to-do list to one side and focus on the now.
When we sleep, our cortisol levels dip, to then peak as our inner body clock tells us to wake up. It gives us energy to get up and go, which benefits early morning fitness junkies, putting that energy peak to good use. A major benefit of exercising in the morning is that the happy hormones and alertness helps us stay focused and positive throughout the day. If you exercise outdoors, your exposure to fresh air and daylight keeps your circadian rhythm in a steady state, positively impacts your mental health and helps you sleep better at night. Some studies suggest that Vitamin D deficiency is more commonplace in those with sleep disorders, so getting outdoors, even for a brisk walk on a cloudy day, helps boost Vitamin D stores.
The positivity from starting the day with exercise, often leads to making better decisions when it comes to eating healthily, feeling better about ourselves and being more productive at work. Sounds like a win-win, right?
We do have unique circadian rhythms and when it comes down to it, you need to do what works for you. If you have a poor night's sleep, you are unlikely to enjoy your exercise or perform particularly well. You may even find that your balance or form is lacking, increasing your chance of injury. If you are a night-owl and struggle to get up in time for work, let alone do a run beforehand, don't beat yourself up over it. The most important aspect is to actually do exercise for your wellbeing and for yourself, rather than not doing any activity at all, or do exercise because 'everyone else is'. There is a clear correlative relationship between sleep and exercise, where both impact the other. Poor sleep often leads to less physical activity and making poor food decisions, neither of which benefits you in the long term. If this sounds familiar, build gentle exercise into your daily routine, such as taking a detour home from the school run, or block your work diary for a short 30-minute session at lunchtime.
Whether it is morning or evening, exercise when you have the energy, time and most importantly the enthusiasm for working out. Make exercise a habit you will stick with and your beauty sleep will come naturally.