From Yoga to Swimming: Relaxing Exercises to Promote Sleep
The choices we make during the day impact the quality of our sleep. There are many factors that contribute to achieving good sleep hygiene, including the food you eat, circadian cycles and the activities you carry out in the day.
There is a body of evidence that suggests exercises — particularly moderate to intense activity, such as yoga, cardio, or strength training — can improve the quality and quantity of your rest.i Exercise prepares the body for sleep by reducing stress, enhancing mood, and inducing sleepiness at night.
Here, we explore the best activities to help you unwind, as well as when the best time to do them to promote healthy sleep.
What’s the connection between sleep and exercise?
Beyond the obvious tiring effect of physical activity on the body, research also suggests physical activity can function as a way to prepare the body for sleep.ii Exercise supports rest thanks to its body-heating effects. Physical activity leads to an increase in body temperature and the post-exercise drop in temperature is thought to contribute to a more restful night’s sleep.
Stress and anxiety can also disrupt your sleep, but a regular exercise routine has been linked to improved mental health — therefore having a positive impact on your sleep hygiene.
When is the best time to exercise?
When it comes to exercising for sleep, timing is essential. Whilst some people find working out in the evening doesn’t affect their sleep, many of the biological processes that happen during exercise can be counter-productive to preparing your body for sleep.
Exercise raises core body temperature, which — if it remains elevated — could interfere with your sleep. Performing intense exercise also increases levels of your stress hormone, cortisol. Doing this kind of exercise in the evening will impact the biological processes your body goes through to promote sleepiness — especially as cortisol acts inversely to your sleep hormone, melatonin.
To ensure your workout doesn’t keep you up at night, try limiting any high-intensity activity to the morning or afternoon. If, however, you enjoy late-night exercising, try to keep your workout moderate. A good way to regulate your core body temperature is by having a hot bath or shower just before bed. The will encourage all the blood to come to the skin, and act as a thermal radiator — taking the heat out of the core of your body. Consequently, your core temperature will plummet and you’ll fall asleep easier.
Which types of exercise promote sleep?
Yoga and Pilates
Studies suggest that mind-body exercise, like yoga or Pilates, can calm the parasympathetic nervous system and, therefore, prime the body for sleep.2 Practising these low-intensity activities, along with deep breathing, is the perfect pre-bed ritual.
These exercises help to let go of the stress accumulated throughout the day; they encourage you to stretch, activate, and relax your muscles to alleviate tension. Furthermore, these exercises have a heavy focus on breathing and meditation, which has been linked to helping prepare the nervous system for sleep initiation as well as falling back to sleep after waking during the night.iii
Activities that increase your heart rate, such as swimming, running, or brisk walking, have also been shown to improve sleep. One study found that aerobic activity offered significant insomnia relief for women aged 55 years and older.iv Researchers revealed performing one 30-40 minute session four times per week or two 20-minute sessions four times per week, for 16 weeks dramatically improved subjects’ duration and quality of sleep.
Where possible, try performing aerobic exercise outside. This will not only trigger higher levels of serotonin — the hormone responsible for making you feel good and regulating sleep —but also help you get your daily dose of natural sunlight, which is essential for recalibrating your natural circadian rhythm and preparing your body for rest.v
Building muscle is known to improve sleep quality, too. Lifting weights, or performing resistance training, offers a host of benefits, including supporting the regulation of essential bodily functions like metabolic rate, blood pressure, and resting glucose metabolism.vi These improvements contribute to stress reduction and promote a more restful night’s sleep.
Some researchers claim strength-training can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply.vii This is because muscle growth and deep sleep have a symbiotic relationship. Deep sleep encourages tissue growth and repair; it’s necessary for the healing process. Shoulder presses, triceps dips, bicep curls, lunges, squats, push-ups, and calf-raises are all great examples of strength-building exercises.
Exercising regularly is one of the best ways to enhance your sleep quality. With only 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day, you can begin to notice a difference in your sleep hygiene.viii
You can learn more about common sleep disorders, factors affecting your sleep hygiene and our advice on how to manage them, and how you can improve the quality of your sleep by visiting our dedicated sleep health hub.
Uher. I. & Bukova,. A. (2018). Interrelationship between Exercise and Diseases in young people: Review study. Physical Activity Review. 6, 203-212.
Bankar. M.A., Chaudhari. S.K. & Chaudhari. K.D. (2013). Impact of long term Yoga practice on sleep quality and quality of life in the elderly. Journal of Ayurveda and integrative medicine. 4(1), 28–32.
Jerath. R., Beveridge C. & Barnes V. (2018). Self-Regulation of Breathing as an Adjunctive Treatment of Insomnia. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 9.
Baron. K., Reid. K. & Zee. P. (2013). Exercise to Improve Sleep in Insomnia: Exploration of the Bidirectional Effects. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
Figueiro. M., Steverson. B., et al. (2017). The impact of daytime light exposures on sleep and mood in office workers. Chronobiology International. 3(3), 204-215.
Lemes. Í., Ferreira. P., et al. (2016). Resistance training reduces systolic blood pressure in metabolic syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 50(23), pp.1438-1442.
Northwestern.edu. (2019). Aerobic Exercise Relieves Insomnia: Northwestern University News. Available online: https://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2010/09/aerobic-exercise-relieves-insomnia.html.
Milne. S. & Elkins. M. (2016). Exercise as an alternative treatment for chronic insomnia (PEDro synthesis). British Journal of Sports Medicine. 51(5), 479-480.
Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.