You already know that exercise delivers plenty of mind and body benefits. Working out reduces stress, boosts your metabolism, and pumps feel-good endorphins and adrenaline throughout your body. However, the very same effects that make exercise so beneficial (like an increased heart rate and body temperature) might also wreak havoc on your sleep if you sweat too close to bedtime.
So what’s a girl to do if the only chance she gets to work out is after dinner? We went to the experts to find out the pros and cons of a late-night workout.
The Good (and the Bad)
First, the good news: It’s a myth that late-night exercise automatically equals a poor night’s sleep. “Overall, the benefits of regular exercise and the effects of exercise on sleep regulation outweigh most of the potential downsides,” says Mimosa Gordon, a fitness and Pilates expert based in New York City.
Research backs this up too—a 2011 study found that pre-bedtime workouts are completely fine and won’t interrupt sleep. In other words, if you sleep well and working out close to bedtime is the best timeframe for you, then go for it, says Gordon.
That said, with most things in health and wellness, it really depends on the individual. “Some people tolerate pre-bedtime workouts well—I do it all of the time,” agrees W. Chris Winter, MD, double board-certified sleep specialist and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It. “In fact, for certain populations (e.g. patients with restless legs), it can be very beneficial to exercise before sleep.”
But for others, pre-bedtime workouts tend to activate and exacerbate sleep-onset insomnia, AKA your ability to fall asleep when you get in bed. Plus, certain workouts are more likely to disrupt your sleep, namely vigorous aerobic exercise, Gordon adds. “Incorporating VO2 maximum efforts, such as sprinting, close to bedtime can elevate adrenaline levels and possibly cause disturbed sleep or wake-ups in the middle of the night.”
So which workouts should you do before bed? Gordon recommends sticking to light to moderate aerobic exercise, resistance training, or relaxing workouts like yoga, which are more likely to help overall sleep quality.
To ensure a good night of sleep post-workout, consider these tips, too:
“Nutrition is an important consideration for late-night training,” Gordon says. It’s important to note that if you put in a lot of effort, such as a long endurance run or a heavy weight-training session, you’ll need to refuel before you go to sleep. “Don’t have a big meal, but do take in some calories after a workout that demands it.” Think: a PB&J on whole-wheat bread, cereal and yogurt, or a post-workout smoothie.
Another boon for better sleep is a post-workout shower. After we shower or bathe in warm water, our body temperature takes a dip, and a cooler body temperature helps signal to our body it’s time to sleep, Gordon notes. Also, Winter suggests helping your body stay cool at night by wearing minimal layers to bed, turning down the thermostat, or even investing in a product like the Ooler sleep system that can actively cool you once in bed. All are helpful.
Dim the Lights
Finally, exercise usually happens in a bright environment, which is bad news for inducing sleep. The reason: Darkness signals to your brain that it’s time to release melatonin, the “sleep hormone” that helps us doze off, while bright light suppresses it. Keep your environment as dark as possible if you must work out late at night, Winter suggests, and dim the lights as soon as you get back home.
Try These Yoga Poses for Better Sleep
Practicing yoga at night can actually help you sleep better. Wind down these five relaxing yoga poses from Koya Webb, yoga teacher, holistic health coach, and author of Let Your Fears Make You Fierce.
Begin in Downward-Facing Dog. With an exhale, place your left knee on the floor behind your left hand, left ankle behind wrist. Lower your right knee to the floor, scooting your leg back so that both hips are near the floor. Untuck the back toes. Check that your back leg is extended straight behind you. Rise onto your fingertips and lengthen your spine. Stay here for a few breaths. Slowly walk your hands forward with an exhale and rest your forehead on the floor. Hold the pose and take slow, deep breaths.
Sit on your heels. Bring your feet together and knees hip-width apart. Bend forward with an exhale and rest your torso between your thighs. Relax your tailbone toward your feet. Reach your arms far forward. Spread your fingers and press your palms into the floor. Rest your forehead on the floor. Hold the pose and take slow, deep breaths. Rise with an inhale.
Lie on your back. Stretch your arms out at shoulder height, palms down. Bend your right leg and place your foot flat on the floor next to your left knee. Place your left hand on top of your right knee. With an exhale, gently guide your right knee toward the floor. Gaze toward the right. Hold the pose and take slow, deep breaths. Untwist with an inhale. Change sides.
Lie on your back. Bend your knees toward your chest with an exhale. Clasp the outsides of your feet with your hands. Open your knees as wide as your shoulders. Flex your feet. Push your feet into your hands with an exhale as you pull your feet down, creating resistance. Hold the pose and take slow, deep breaths. Release with an exhale.
Savasana (or Sleep!)
Perform this pose in bed to invite in sleep. Lie on your back. Bring your feet wide and let them flop open. Bring your arms several inches away from your torso, palms up. Make any minor adjustments needed so that you are completely comfortable. Close your eyes. Find stillness. Hold the pose and take natural breaths. Focus your attention on your breath.