Sport and sleep
The alarm clock goes off and, as you wake up, you already know it’s going to be a long day. And it’s obvious to you that you are short on sleep. Last night you felt it was unimportant, and now, although you would prefer to stay in your warm bed, you have a full day ahead of you.
Does this sound familiar?
Sufficient sleep is hugely important, not just for our physical health, but also our mental health and performance. For example, enough sleep may help you to avoid various illnesses.
Nevertheless, sleep is something that we frequently neglect. In this article, we will discuss sleep hygiene and investigate whether sporting activities can boost refreshing sleep.
What is “sleep hygiene”?
In general, sleep hygiene means various habits and behaviours that result in healthy sleep. Accordingly, good sleep hygiene should lead sleeping well, and should also prevent sleep problems. For example, your sleep environment (a darkened room, reduced noise), sleep rhythm (going to bed and getting up at regular times), your fluid intake habits (caffeinated and alcoholic drinks), and sport and exercise will all affect your sleep.
Let’s now focus on how sport affects sleep quality.
Can sport boost sleep?
It seems self-evident that sporting activities tire the body out, and that we sleep better as a result. But is it really true that sport boosts sleep? Actually, there are indicators that contradict this. Physical activity activates our sympathetic nervous system in a similar way to caffeine. If you look at current research, the statement “sport boosts sleep” is partially corroborated. People who regularly do sport really do seem to have qualitatively better sleep. Sport generally affects our total sleep duration, meaning that the time needed to fall asleep is shorter, and above all, the deep sleep phases are longer. This is of utmost importance for our bodies and our rest, because muscle cells, bones and tissues regenerate first and foremost in the deep sleep phases.
What’s more, sleep quality depends on multiple factors: for example, the intensity and duration of the activity and the time you did your sporting activity. It has long been assumed that evening sport, before going to bed, impairs our sleep quality – but that isn’t entirely true. The intensity of the sporting session is decisive here. If a training session is high intensity, the outcome may be that you take longer to fall asleep due to the adrenaline your body has released, and that your sleep duration is shorter. Other reasons are probably the way our cardio-vascular system fails to recover, leading to an increased heart rate. Ultimately, this high intensity inhibits the hormone melatonin, which governs the sleep-wake cycle and makes us sleepy – this is why melatonin is often colloquially referred to as the “sleep hormone”.
However, if the intensity of your training before bedtime isn’t too high, and you are the sort of person who performs best in the evening, then an evening training session should not make your sleep worse.
But what should you bear in mind to ensure that sport benefits your sleep? We have summarised the most recent recommendations from research below:
- Duration: your sporting activity should, where possible, be longer (more than 60 minutes in the best-case scenario). However, regular sport or exercise sessions will likewise benefit your health.
- Intensity: if you want to improve your deep sleep, the exertion should ideally be moderately high. That means that you should exercise to get a little out of breath and break a light sweat. High-intensity training sessions (too close to bedtime) may lead to waking up more often in the night.
- Timing: to achieve the greatest improvements in your sleep, your sport session should be planned for approximately four to eight hours before bedtime. If you prefer to train in the evenings, training for no longer than 30-45 minutes is recommended.
- After training: stretching, breathing or relaxation exercises may help the body to power down. This is particularly useful after evening training sessions.
- A relaxing bath: a hot bath or shower will help to break down cortisol – exercise boosts cortisol production. In addition, this will also help your muscles to relax.
Did you know that we spend approximately one-third of our lives asleep? Unbelievable? Unbelievably important for our wellbeing. You can find more information on sleep hygiene and various facts and tips on sleep here.
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Erlacher, D. (2019). Sport fördert Schlaf. In Sport und Schlaf (pp. 147-157). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-662-58132-2_12
Ingold, I. (2020, 19 November). Wie durch Sport der Schlaf verbessert wird. Swissbiomechanics. https://www.swissbiomechanics.ch/blog/2020/wie-durch-sport-der-schlaf-verbessert-wird/
Jötten, F. (2018, 8 September). Unser Schlaf in Zahlen: Statistiken und Studien zum Thema. Echo. https://www.echo-online.de/panorama/leben-und-wissen/unser-schlaf-in-zahlen-statistiken-und-studien-zum-thema-1334791 Lungenliga Thurgau. (n. d.) Schlafhygiene: Für einen erholsamen Schlaf. https://www.lungenliga.ch/de/lungenliga-thurgau/dienstleistungen/beratung-und-betreuung/informationen-fuer-patienten.html