Exercise and sleep: the perfect partnership

Dec 27, 2023

Key takeaways 

  • Exercise positively affects sleep quality by regulating our hormones and brain chemicals, circadian rhythm and core temperature.

  • Moderate intensity aerobic exercise is the best way to improve the quality of sleep. Even an additional 2000 steps per day can contribute to better sleep quality.

  • Regular strength training, two to three times per week, is also recommended for better sleep.

  • The timing of exercise also affects sleep quality. Late-night exercise is known to interfere with the ability to fall asleep.  

  • Sleep improves physical and mental performance, recovery time and immune function.

Importance of sleep 

Sleep is essential for our optimal health. Almost all of our body systems and processes are affected by sleep. Sleep supports our muscles, metabolism, and immune function, as well as helping prevent neurological diseases such as Alzehimer’s (1). Chronic sleep deprivation increases the risk of heart disease, metabolic and weight issues, mood and psychological concerns and can even contribute to early death. 

Sleep requirements can vary depending on our health and lifestyle, but it’s recommended that we get seven to nine hours of good quality and uninterrupted sleep per night (3). Unfortunately 30 percent of working adults report that they get six or less hours of sleep per night (2). 

Sleep medications, including prescription and over-the-counter options, can be effective in helping some people with short term sleep difficulties. However they also come with potential risks and side effects. Some sleep medications can lead to dependence, increasing the risk of addiction. 

How exercise improves sleep

Exercise regulates the body’s hormone system, circadian rhythm, and core temperature - all of which are factors in sleep quality. Physical exertion from exercise tends to help you fall asleep faster. Frequent physical activity increases the amount of time spent asleep, deepens the quality of sleep, and reduces the time it takes to fall asleep (2).

Stress relieving

Physical activity increases the production of endorphins, known as “feel-good” hormones, which can create feelings of happiness and euphoria, thereby reducing stress and promoting better sleep. 

Increases adenosine 

The chemical adenosine naturally accumulates for the duration we’re awake, leading to an increased drive or need to sleep. Exercise increases the production of adenosine, which can help increase sleep duration (19).

Body temperature 

Exercise raises core body temperature by increasing metabolic activity and energy production. About 30 to 90 minutes after exercise the body’s core temperature begins to fall (20) which promotes sleepiness.

Circadian rhythm regulator

Regular physical activity can help reinforce your body's sense of day and night, making it easier to fall asleep at night. Exercisehelps regulate our body’s natural clock, and reinforces the natural sleep-wake cycle. 

Slow-wave sleep enhancement

Exercise has been associated with deeper and more restorative sleep, particularly in the earlier part of the night(2). Deep sleep, also called slow-wave sleep, occurs in the third stage of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Deep sleep helps to boost immune function, support cardiac health and control stress and anxiety (21).

Sleep disorders

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

Exercise can be beneficial for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition characterised by periods of partial or complete blockage of the upper airway during sleep. Regular exercise improves lung capacity and strengthens respiratory muscles, which can help keep the airways open during sleep. 

Regular exercise has cardiovascular benefits, including improved blood circulation, reduced blood pressure and enhanced heart health - which is particularly important for those with OSA. While exercise alone is a cure for OSA, it can contribute to the management and improvement of the condition’s symptoms (12).  

Restless leg syndrome (RLS)

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder characterised by an uncontrollable urge to move the legs, and is often accompanied by uncomfortable sensations. While the specific cause of RLS is not fully understood, incorporating regular exercise into your routine may help alleviate symptoms.

Regular exercise improves circulation, which can help reduce the uncomfortable sensations associated with RLS. Exercise promotes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in controlling muscle movement and is often low in people with RLS (13). 

Make sure to stay well-hydrated, as dehydration can potentially exacerbate RLS symptoms.


Insomnia is a prevalent sleep disorder characterised by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, even with sufficient time and an optimal sleep environment. 

Regular aerobic exercise improves sleep quality and reduces symptoms of insomnia. Exercise specifically improves the delay in falling asleep (14). In a study conducted on adults over 40 years old with sleep problems, an exercise training program with aerobic or resistance exercise for ten to sixteen weeks showed a significant improvement in sleep. The participants took less time to fall asleep and were able to reduce their intake of insomnia medication (8). 

Improving sleep quality 

Exercise can directly and indirectly improve sleep quality. The amount of exercise needed to improve sleep quality can vary from person to person.

Aerobic exercise 

Also known as cardiovascular exercise or cardio, is any type of exercise that stimulates your heart and lungs, increasing your breathing and circulation of oxygenated blood. (5) Examples of aerobic exercise include:

  • Running

  • Brisk walking

  • Cycling 

  • Swimming

  • Dancing

  • Zumba classes

Moderate intensity of aerobic exercise, three to five times per week, has been shown to improve the quality of sleep. Aim to reach 60-80% of your maximum heart rate for 45-60 minutes by running, cycling, rowing or brisk walking to improve your quality of sleep (6). 

Even low-intensity exercise, such as walking an additional 2000 steps per day contributes to better sleep quality (6). Studies show that people who are more physically active throughout the day tend to have less waking time after falling asleep, which means more uninterrupted sleep (7). 

Strength and resistance exercise 

Unlike aerobic exercise that focuses on cardiovascular fitness, strength training involves working against resistance to challenge and strengthen your muscles.

  • Weight training: free weights, dumbbells or barbells.

  • Bodyweight exercise: push-ups, squats, lunges and planks.

  • Resistance bands

  • Gym machines: leg or chest presses, cable machines, leg curls and rowing. 

A regular strength training routine is recommended to improve sleep by reducing stress and anxiety, and increasing levels of the hormone melatonin, which promotes sleep (10).

Resistance exercise performed earlier in the day, has been shown to shorten the time needed to fall asleep (9). 

High-intensity training (HIIT) 

This form of cardiovascular exercise alternates short bursts of intense activity and lower-intensity exercise or rest. HIIT workouts are known for their efficiency and effectiveness in improving cardiovascular fitness, burning calories and promoting various health benefits.

  • Running or sprint intervals: alternating between sprints and jogging or walking.

  • Cycling: pedalling at max effort for short bursts then lower intensity cycling or rest. 

  • Bodyweight: combining exercises like jumping jacks, burpees, high knees, and mountain climbers in quick, intense intervals.

  • Tabata: A specific form of HIIT with 20 seconds of intense exercise followed by ten seconds of rest, repeated every four minutes.

  • Circuit training: Rotating through different strength or cardio exercises with minimal rest between each.

High intensity exercise performed in the evening may delay sleep onset as it raises core body temperature (11)  Morning exercise, coupled with exposure to natural light, can help regulate the sleep-wake cycle and promote better sleep at night.

Stability & mobility exercise 

Stability and mobility exercises are essential components of a well-rounded fitness routine. They focus on improving the body's ability to move efficiently, contributing to better overall functional movement, injury prevention, and enhanced athletic performance.

  • Stability: planks, bridges, stability ball, single leg balance. 

  • Mobility: foam rolling, dynamic stretches, shoulder circles, ankle circles, hip flexor stretches. 

Improved muscle relaxation can reduce levels of stress and anxiety and lead to a more comfortable and restful sleep (22). 

How does sleep affect exercise?

Sleep has a significant impact on exercise performance, recovery and overall fitness. The relationship between sleep and exercise is cyclical.

Physical and mental performance 

A good night's sleep is essential for optimal physical and mental performance. Sleep deprivation can lead to decreased strength, endurance, and coordination. Sleep is crucial for  reaction time, decision-making and focus.

Improved recovery 

Adequate sleep is crucial for the recovery of muscles after a workout and after injuries. Sleep supports the body's ability to repair tissues and reduces inflammation (15). During the deep sleep phase, the body releases growth hormone, which is essential for muscle repair and growth. 

Immune function 

Sleep  plays a vital role in immune function. Insufficient sleep can weaken the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness (16).

Weight management 

Sleep influences hormonal balance, including leptin and ghrelin which are related to appetite regulation. Poor sleep can disrupt these hormones, leading to increased cravings and overeating (17). Inadequate sleep can also decrease human growth hormone and elevate cortisol levels (18). Human growth hormone and cortisol play an important role in regulating our metabolism and maintaining blood glucose levels. 


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