It’s a common belief that exercise helps people to sleep better. In practice, however, this can seem to produce inconsistent results.
Sometimes you’ll work out, then a few hours later, fall into bed and you’re asleep in ten minutes. Other times, perhaps after a hard, exhausting workout, you’re left staring at the ceiling all night, wondering why you can’t fall asleep.
So, to steer you in the right direction, here are four rules to follow to use exercise to fight insomnia.
1) The morning mini-workout
As soon as you get out of bed every morning, perform one to five minutes of bodyweight exercise. Here’s an example of a morning mini-workout you can start using tomorrow morning:
20 air squats
20-30 second plank
This is not a true workout, and should energize you rather than fatiguing you. Your actual workout should come later in the day- I’ll tell you why in a bit.
Our biological clocks are supposed to get us ready for sleep about 16 hours after waking; one reason for insomnia is that we don’t fully wake up when we get out of bed, and thus that 16-hour clock doesn’t start ticking until a few hours later.
A morning mini-workout ensures that your brain will fully wake up, right at the start of your day.
Second, exercising raises your metabolism and core body temperature, usually for about 4-5 hours. Most people find it hard to sleep during that period, although this does vary between individuals.
By exercising in the later afternoon or early evening, you can ensure that you get a harder workout- and therefore one that tires you out more. At the same time, you give your body enough time to come down from the workout and get ready for sleep.
3) Use iso-lateral movements to tire yourself out
Exercise fatigues the body in several ways: it depletes glycogen, produces lactic acid, tears the muscles, wears out the nervous system. While all are important for fitness, the nervous system fatigue is the part that makes exercise helpful for insomnia.
If you’ve noticed that exercise helps you sleep some times but not others, this might be why: you’re not taxing your nervous system during your workouts.
The most effective way to do that is to use iso-lateral movements- that is, movements that work one side of the body at a time, or both side independently. These movements emphasize the neural component of exercise by making you work to balance the weight. Some good iso-lateral exercises to use are:
Bulgarian split squats
One-armed dumbbell rows
If you’re at home, you can also use the tried and true method of standing on one leg until you get fatigued, twice on each leg.
4) Maintain consistency to set your biological clock
Just as your brain tends to want to sleep 16 hours after waking up, it also sets your circadian rhythm by the timing of your workouts.
In other words, if you normally work out at 6 PM and go to bed at 11 PM, your brain will get in the habit of going to sleep about 5 hours after your workout. If you then work out later at night one day, your brain will adjust its sleep time accordingly.
Therefore, insomniacs should consistently exercise the same number of hours before their expected bedtime. In the example I just gave, that person should always work out about 5 hours before bed. If she wants to go to sleep earlier one night, she should work out earlier. If she wants to go clubbing and be in bed by 3, she should push her workout back to 10, or at least 8.
It can take as long as 16 weeks for your brain to adjust to your workout schedule, so you need to stick with it. Once your brain has adapted, you can use your workouts to hack your circadian rhythm, overcome jet lag, and reset your “sleep clock” at will.
Exercise is in fact one of the best remedies for insomnia, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. If you do the right exercises at the right times, and do them consistently, you can start enjoying deep, restful sleep every night.
John Fawkes is a fitness coach who helps people lose weight, sleep better, and have more energy. He has a free guide to building better habits. When John isn’t writing, he’s usually going to rock concerts or playing Dungeons and Dragons.