Everybody’s got a take on the best time of day to work out. And the truth is there isn’t a solid formula — it’s whenever you have the time. You might be a hardcore a.m workout addict, or maybe you’d rather do burpees for the rest of eternity than rise and shine for early exercise. Regardless of your preferences, sometimes you’ve got no choice but to burn calories while burning the midnight oil. Here’s how to keep those late-night workouts from keeping you up until the wee hours.
Exercise and Insomnia: What’s the Connection?
Some scientific evidence suggests that exercise can keep you up at night, while other sources insist that post-workout insomnia is a total myth. And isn’t exercising — even at night — better for your sleep than not exercising at all? One survey found that those who work out report having better quality sleep than those who don’t.
Sleep experts land somewhere in the middle and suggest that for most people, a couple hours after a workout is enough time to wind down. But other factors play a part, like the duration and intensity of the exercise. What gives?
When the body is stressed (as in a workout), the brain produces endorphins, which are a natural painkiller. If you’re feeling depressed or anxious, exercise also promotes feel-good neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine, to help relieve feelings of sadness. This cocktail of natural chemicals is responsible for that runner’s high you may feel after a workout. But working out also increases cortisol levels — the stress hormone, says Shawn Stevenson, creator and host of The Model Health Show podcast, and author of Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success. “Cortisol is bad if it’s produced at the wrong times or in the wrong quantities,” Stevenson explains. At the end of the day, you want your cortisol levels dropping — not rising — because cortisol blocks the production of sleep-triggering melatonin.
“Melatonin is like a master switch,” says Stevenson. It plays an important role in getting your body the sleep, rest and recovery it needs, and even plays a role in fat loss. Stevenson points out that those bright gym lights you work out under are also going to inhibit melatonin production (just like the lights in your house and the blue light from your smartphone). Follow these tips to prevent your nighttime sweat sesh from keeping you up all night.
5 Things You Can Do to Prevent Post-Workout Insomnia
1. Get into a routine.
Need a good reason to exercise in the morning? According to the National Sleep Foundation, “People who work out on a treadmill at 7:00 a.m. sleep longer, experience deeper sleep cycles, and spend 75 percent more time in the most reparative stages of slumber than those who exercise at later times that day.”
If you can’t swing mornings, it’s worth making an effort to schedule your workouts at the same time each night, says Stevenson. “Biological rhythms are always looking for patterns,” he explains. So, if you exercise late every night, you may actually snooze better than if you only work out late occasionally.
2. Stay cool.
A drop in your body temperature cues sleep, but exercise increases body temperature. After working out, Stevenson says your body has to work to return to its normal temperature, which is going to make falling asleep harder.
The intensity, duration, and amount of muscle tissue used in a workout determine how much heat the body produces. So, full-body cardio workouts might be most problematic for your slumber. Weightlifting exercises that include long rests between sets won’t increase your temp as much as supersetting. Light stretching or yoga will have the least effect. How much you’re sweating or flushing is also a good indicator of just how hot and bothered you’re getting.
A hot shower or bath after your workout will cause a “rebound effect,” says Stevenson. This can help your body cool down faster and make it easier to sleep.
“Cortisol comes from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system,” says Stevenson and is the body’s fight or flight response. Calming the sympathetic nervous system and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the “rest and digest” system) will help you wind down.
According to research, yoga might be one way to help insomniacs get better sleep. Try practicing a few calming yoga poses post-workout or right before bed to counteract those intense, just-exercised vibes. Meditation or even a few slow, deep-belly breaths have also been shown to help calm the body, says Stevenson.
4. Have a bedtime ritual.
Every parent knows the importance of a bedtime ritual for kids, but the same is true for grown-ups. “We’re just big adult babies,” says Stevenson. Adult brains crave routine just as much as kids’ brains. Anything you can do habitually to cue your brain that it’s bedtime — reading a book, self-massage, meditation etc. — is a win.
An important part of winding down is reducing the amount of melatonin-disrupting light you’re exposed to. If you can’t turn all the lights off while you work out, try blue-light blocking glasses or blue-light blocking apps instead to help mitigate the effects of light late at night.
5. Sip sleep-inducing brews.
You already know you should avoid caffeine in the evening, but why not take things a step further by sipping something that will increase drowsiness? (No, not wine, sorry!) Try chamomile tea or a sleep smoothie to drift off with ease. Good sleep nutrients include vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium, says Stevenson. Look to leafy greens, avocados, cherries, and strawberries to counter deficiencies in these nutrients, he suggests.
Regardless of when you work out, it’s important to listen to your body. “This all goes back to what’s working with our biochemistry,” says Stevenson. Understanding why your fitness routine wakes you up is the first step toward reversing its effects.
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Originally published on April 20, 2017. Updated on February 4, 2022
All images except for the cover image via Shutterstock. Cover image by Daily Burn