Exercise-and-sleepFor several years, I jogged, rode a bicycle or worked out at a gym three days a week. This physical activity was both a duty and a pleasure. It kept me healthy, and often it made me feel good. But it didn’t seem to affect my sleep one way or the other.

A new survey suggests that exercise generally tends to improve sleep. Data from the National Sleep Foundation 2013 poll released on Monday show that

  • Exercise correlates with better sleep quality. About 83 percent of the survey respondents who got vigorous exercise reported their sleep quality to be “very good” or “fairly good,” as well as 76 to 77 percent of the respondents whose exercise was light to moderate. Only 56 percent of the non-exercisers reported good sleep quality.
  • Exercise helps you fall asleep faster. Non-exercisers reported taking nearly twice as long to get to sleep as those who exercised vigorously.
  • Exercise cuts down on feelings of sleepiness during the day. Nearly twice as many non-exercisers (24 percent) as exercisers (12 to 15 percent) experienced excessive daytime sleepiness.

Walking the Walk

Everyone knows we should get more exercise (just like we should eat more fruit and vegetables and pass on dessert). But finding the motivation to actually do the exercise is another matter. It can also be hard to find the time. After a day’s work, fixing dinner, playing with Junior and then getting him to bed, when can you fit it in?

The motivation issue can be tough to contend with, especially if you’re not convinced there’s a relationship between physical activity and your sleep, which is how I felt.

Keeping a Sleep Diary

Then about five years ago a sleep therapist suggested keeping a sleep diary for a couple weeks. I did, recording daily the time it took to fall asleep, the number of times I woke up, how long I slept and the amount of exercise I got.

The diary revealed a clear pattern. Overall, I slept better and longer, and fell asleep more easily, on nights following afternoon workouts on the elliptical trainer. There it was in black and white—the facts spoke for themselves.

This motivated me to start exercising every day, and it’s clear now that daily exercise really helps my sleep. So one way of tackling the motivation issue may be to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks to see if there is in fact a relationship between exercise and your sleep.

Finding time to exercise may be a harder problem to solve. I’ll consider this in a separate blog but, for now, the National Sleep Foundation poll concludes that “exercise, or physical activity in general, is generally good for sleep, regardless of the time of day the activity is performed.”

National Sleep Foundation – 2013 Exercise and Sleep Poll


Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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