Exercise Before Sleep Has Benefits and Drawbacks. Decide if it’s Best for You
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As a certified personal trainer and writer who has researched the best fitness practices tirelessly, I can assure you that exercising before sleep benefits your body and mind in the same ways as exercising at other times of the day. There’s even evidence that it might help you sleep better.
That said, research doesn’t currently support that exercising before bed will help you lose weight or burn belly fat for the long term any better than exercising at another time of day.
If you like to exercise before bed or want to know how it can benefit you, including what types of exercise are best, keep reading for my personal experience and evidence-based breakdown.
Should You Exercise Before Sleep?
Exercise and sleep have what’s called a bi-directional positive relationship. This means exercise helps you sleep better, and sleep helps you to exercise better and with more consistency. But, you don’t need to exercise before bedtime to gain the benefits.
If you want to exercise before sleep, there are some potential benefits:
May help shorten the time it takes to fall asleep
May help you stay asleep without waking up during the night
Helps keep you active instead of sedentary on the couch
Can distract you from mindless snacking when you’re not hungry
Can increase mood and reduce stress before bedtime.
Keep in mind that every person is different. I’ve had clients who do very well with any form of exercise at night and others who find they can’t fall asleep if they have a heavy or intense workout in the evenings. It’s worth experimenting to see if exercise before sleep works for you.
If you have trouble fitting in exercise at another time of the day, exercising before sleep is better than not exercising at all — unless it significantly interferes with your sleep quality and quantity. After all, sleep is vital for health, including maintaining a healthy body weight, reducing stress, and warding off illness and disease.
What Type of Exercise Before Sleep Is Best?
Personally, I enjoy working on mobility, gentle stretching, yoga, and other activities that promote a calm and restful state. I sometimes lift weights in the evenings when my days have been too busy to fit in my training earlier, and this doesn’t seem to interfere with my sleep. In the past, however, I’ve had a lot of difficulty sleeping after intense exercise.
It’s best to try different types of exercise and see how each affects your ability to fall and stay asleep. Pay attention to how rested you feel when you wake up the next day and how many times you woke up during the night. If your exercise session worsened your sleep, continuing that type at night isn't worth it. Instead, stick to lower-intensity workouts that help to calm and relax you to prepare for sleep.
Here’s a breakdown of the research and best practices for each exercise intensity.
What it is: Low-intensity exercises such as walking, yoga, Pilates, mobility work, stretching, or gentle swimming are all likely to improve sleep before bed. Low-intensity activity is when your heart rate is between 57% and 63% of your max. Your maximum heart rate can be estimated by subtracting your age from 220.
How it helps: This type of exercise is known to help improve mood, reduce stress, and foster relaxation — all excellent ways to wind down before bed. Low-intensity activities like yoga can help your nervous system enter the “rest-and-digest” state, the opposite of the “fight-or-flight” state that keeps you tense and stressed.
Who should try it: If you’re the type of person whose mind races and you can’t feel calm while trying to sleep, trying low-intensity exercise before bed might give you the best results. Switching your nervous system to relaxing and resting can be the key to better sleep for these people.
What it is: Moderate-intensity exercise includes lighter to moderate weight resistance training, brisk walking, brisk swimming, hiking or walking up hills, cycling, or aerobics. To perform moderate-intensity activity, your heart rate should be between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate.
How it helps: First off, regular moderate-intensity exercise such as brisk walking has been shown to add 20 years to your lifespan compared to slow walking. Concerning sleep, a meta-analysis of studies shows that moderate-intensity exercise may be the best choice. It was ranked as having the most potential to improve sleep compared to low and high-intensity exercise.
Additional research suggests that engaging in a single bout of moderate-intensity aerobic or resistance exercise that finishes about 90 minutes before bed won’t compromise sleep. For myself and clients who hit the gym in the evening, prioritizing strength training at moderate intensity levels seems to help with sleep, not hinder it.
Who should try it: Everyone should try moderate-intensity exercise before sleep, especially if that’s the only time you can get it done. The benefits of this form of activity are too crucial to miss out on. Also, if you spend a lot of time sitting, moderate-intensity workouts can help you burn off energy and tire yourself out more than low-intensity ones.
What it is: High-intensity (HI) or vigorous-intensity exercise includes interval training or HIIT, sprinting, powerlifting, Tabata, hill running, or any activity that elevates your heart rate between 77% and 93% of your maximum.
Many people confuse high intensity with moderate intensity. HI training is done in short bursts since the energy system required to power you through it can’t keep up with the intensity for long. Actual high-intensity work is only sustainable for a short time without rest, and is extremely taxing on your body and nervous system.
How it helps: High-intensity workouts before bed can help or hinder sleep, depending on the person. This type of exercise can help exhaust you and increase feel-good endorphins that combat stress. It also enables you to burn many calories quickly, which is ideal if you have trouble fitting in more prolonged bouts of exercise.
Research shows that evening high-intensity exercise performed two to four hours before bedtime does not disrupt sleep in healthy, young, and middle-aged adults. Of course, there are always exceptions.
Who should try it: Personally, high-intensity training puts me into too much of an activated “fight-or-flight” mode, leading to racing thoughts and restless legs at night. Many others feel the same way.
It’s worth experimenting to see if this is true for you. If you’re sedentary throughout the day, some high-intensity work could help you burn off energy and tire you out for sleep. Give it a try and monitor your results. Remember to take rest days between high-intensity workouts, as they are very taxing on your body.
Does Exercising Before Sleep Help With Fat Loss?
While circadian rhythms are closely tied to body weight regulation, few scientific studies show that exercising at specific times of day will help you lose or keep weight off. One study published in The International Journal of Obesity examined inactive, overweight, and obese young adults to see if exercise affects fat loss. The subjects exercised at least half the time either between 7:00 and 11:59 am, 3:00 and 7:00 pm or sporadically in both time frames.
The researchers also tracked body weight, energy intake, and non-exercise physical activity throughout the study. Here are the results: After 10 months, the participants who exercised primarily in the early hours or various times of day (sporadic) lost the most weight, an average of 7 pounds for early exercisers and 5.5 pounds for sporadic. Those who exercised in the later hours still lost weight, but it was significantly less, at 2.1 pounds.
Although this study didn’t examine the late evening hours, it still shows a trend toward earlier workouts being preferable for weight loss, which has been backed up by other studies on early morning exercise.
What This Means for You
There are no absolutely clear reasons why earlier exercisers may lose more weight, but in my professional opinion, I’d say clients who work out in the morning tend to have more energy and are more consistent and committed to their exercise routines. Working out in the evening with a weight loss goal in mind tends to be tricky for those who are tired and focused on getting home to their couch (and snacks!).
Weight loss comes down to creating an energy deficit, so the late-day exercisers who lost less weight either reduced energy burn or increased consumption (those extra snacks on the couch). Keep in mind that this study was done on people new to working out, which may have made a difference in the amount of effort they put into their evening workouts. It’s not set in stone and may not affect you.
As long as you feel you can put effort into your evening fat-loss workouts, you shouldn’t worry about the results of singular studies. And if working out in the latter part of the day is your only option, you should not be discouraged; keep fitting in your workouts and being consistent, and you’ll see results.
If you’d like a customized workout plan that can suggest the best times for you to work out, sign up for a free consultation with a certified personal trainer.