Anyone who exercises, and who sleeps, has heard the canard that it's a bad idea to exercise before trying to go to sleep. That canard can seem to have a lot of common sense to it. On its face, the state of working out seems like the precise opposite of the state of being asleep.
The actual research is mixed on the subject. There's no doubt that working out has effects that don't seem conducive to a good night's sleep, including a release of adrenaline, a higher core body temperature, and an elevated heart rate. At the same time, a 2013 Sleep in America Poll’s finding concluded that people who exercise in the last 4 hours before going to bed slept just as well as people who exercised earlier.
Fitness guru, Jillian Michaels, is among those who don't believe there's anything wrong with ending the day with a good pump. Her advice is that the best time to work out is whenever it feels right to do so. This seems to be pretty obvious, especially considering that each of our bodies is different, responding differently to stimuli such as muscular exertion. As far as she's concerned, it's only a "myth" that exercise must inevitably lead to sleepless nights.
In fact, it turns out that there are a few clear advantages to working out late.
The average workday still begins early in the morning and ends in the early evening. Some of us with such a schedule are fine with waking up at 5:00 AM or earlier in order to get to the gym, but not everyone's biorhythms work that way. There are those of us who prefer to wake up more or less with the sunrise. Others prefer to keep their mornings to reading the news and sipping coffee or to make more of a fuss about breakfast than a hurried power bar or a few raw eggs in a blender. Still, others have children to ready for school, or a dog to walk.
Late workouts have the further advantage of not having that hard, fixed time when it has to end in order not to be late for work. If one feels like doing a bit of extra cardio, a night-time workout leaves one free to indulge. Late workouts also leave one freer to enjoy the social side of the gym, getting to know fellow fitness fiends more or less at leisure. Typically, all they're missing is whatever's on TV that night.
Working out at night doesn't simply lead to a potentially longer workout, but a better one, making use of the body's peak performance. One study found that the body's oxygen intake peaks during the night hours. So does anaerobic capacity, while our muscles' utilization of anaerobic reserves is slower. In short, muscles actually respond better to working out in the evening. Not only does one have more time for those extra reps, but more capacity, potentially leading to better results than is possible in the morning.
We might well ask how working out can’t interfere with sleep if it heats the body and increases the heart rate. It turns out that night-time workouts also produce endorphins, which in turn make us feel more relaxed. Late workouts also yield a greater reduction in blood glucose levels than earlier workouts.
Even the evening exerciser's pre- and post-workout stretch help give a better night's sleep, according to Carolinas HealthCare System sleep specialist Jaspal Singh, M.D. Stretching loosens up joints clenched tight after a day of stress, especially the joints in the back and the hips. Dr. Singh has specific exercises, ranging from Yoga stretching to breathing to visualization, which can be incorporated into anyone's late night routine no matter what time they actually hit the gym.
Those who feel inclined to work out at night should feel well-supported not just by their own experience, but by science. It's important to remember that there is a dietary component to good sleep, too. These are just common sense. Avoid caffeine, sugar, and carbohydrates (which turn into sugar during digestion) before bedtime. Stick to protein if a late-night snack is unavoidable. Unclutter the mind - and exercise is good for this, too.
Inspired by Dr. Singh, we can recommend still another visualization exercise that will help provide a better night's sleep. Just see yourself slowly cooking, then eating, that big, delicious breakfast you have planned for tomorrow morning. Sweet dreams!
While Jillian Michaels is right to tell us we should feel free to exercise before bed-time, it appears she doesn't go far enough. There's mounting evidence that, counterintuitive as it might seem to many, night-time truly is the right time to go to the gym. Let dinner be your pre-workout snack, set the DVR to record that favorite show, and prepare to pump it up all night long.