The Best Exercises for the Best Sleep
Here’s the first lesson of Sleep 101: regular exercise is an absolute essential for better shuteye. As we’ve said before, scientists have found that, among other benefits, physical activity is useful as “a non-pharmaceutical alternative to improve sleep”—and maybe it’s no coincidence that sleep, in turn, is a powerful way to increase athletic performance.
Of course, we’re practically always engaged in some kind of “physical activity,” and the call to exercise conjures up vastly different ideas for different people. So where does science stand on what level of physical activity helps you with the ultimate physical inactivity? Is a daily walk enough? Or should I designate 2015 as The Year of Crossfit? How can I hack my sleep?
Ultimately, any way you can break a sweat will serve to regulate your hormones and keep your energy levels consistent (which improves sleep quality), but here are a few tips to help you maximize the sleep-boosting superpowers of your next sweatfest:
1) Sprint Occasionally, Walk Often.
Both high intensity and low intensity exercise can improve sleeping patterns by helping the production of endorphins and serotonin. However despite the profound hormonal benefits, it’s not wise to engage in very intense exercise like interval training every day of the week since it puts quite a strain on the cardio-respiratory system.
The solution for those hoping to exercise their way to better sleep is to go back to basics: walking is back in fashion. A 2011 study of nineteen subjects over six months found that a 50-minute bout of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, in this case a brisk walk on a treadmill, was enough to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and increase the sleep’s duration and quality.
Walkers are also three times more likely to meet their exercise recommendations than people who don’t walk at all, and it’s so easy on the body that you can—nay, should—take a long walk every day you’re not hitting the gym. This will help to optimize your sleep hormones and regulate your circadian rhythms without overstressing your system.
Unique in its ability to be simultaneously grueling and relaxing, yoga delivers a powerful combination of soothing meditation and deep stretching, which can help the muscles relax, increase sleep-friendly melatonin, and control the sleep antagonists cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormone.
For a lot of people, nothing beats the communal atmosphere of a yoga class, but the beauty of this ancient practice is that it’s all done with bodyweight, so you can “Namaste” at home if that’s a more convenient option. The following poses provide deep, full stretches that will release common tight areas and help you wind down:
Forward Bend: Stand with the feet six inches apart, fold the torso toward the ground, and “hang” out here as long as you like. Bend your arms and grab your elbows with the opposite hands and feel free to sway gently. Another variation on the forward bend is to sit cross-legged and fold over the knees, so that the hands and forearms are touching the floor. This opens the hips and eases tension throughout the posterior chain.
Child’s pose: Sit on your calves so that your shins and the tops of your feet touching the ground. Keeping the butt by the calves, fold the torso forward, with the arms extended and the forehead resting on the ground. Massage the forehead left to right to ease tension in the brow.
Happy Baby: Lie on your back, bend your knees to your chest, flex your feet, and use your hands to draw your knees to your armpits. Move your thighs in large circles to help open up the hips.
Supine spinal twist: Lie on your back, bring your right knee to your chest, then guide it across your left side. Extend your right arm out and bend your head to look toward your hand. Hold for as long as desired, then repeat in the opposite direction. This gentle twist helps to relieve tension throughout the spine.
Try finishing with one of our sleep meditations.
This may well be the most neglected muscle group in all of strength training. Not only does a strong, powerful neck help to hold your head in place and reduce the risk of concussion in case of trauma, but a study in Thorax suggested that it could improve cases of sleep apnea. Neck exercises also help to improve posture and reduce neck stiffness, both of which can cause poor sleep and tension headaches.
Now, it’s not as though the neck is inactive during exercise. Much of resistance training, particularly power cleans and deadlifts, involves flexing and stabilizing the neck. But to cover all of your bases, practice the following movements once or twice per week, in two sets of 10 to 15. Keep the motion smooth and don’t rush through the reps:
Flexion: After first stretching downward, sideward and rotationally, place your palm on your forehead. Gently push your hand into your forehead as you “nod” downward and upward.
Lateral flexion: Place your palm against your temple, and try to stretch your neck sideways, as though you’re aiming to touch your ear to your shoulder. Do the same in the other direction.
Look-aways: Ideally with a weak resistance band, but otherwise with your hand, use gentle pressure to rotate your head in both directions.
Keep these pointers in mind while maintaining your regular exercise habits, and rest easy in the knowledge that your workouts are doing exactly what they’re meant to: Keeping your system strong and your sleep deep.
 Oliveira BR, et al. Continuous and High-Intensity Interval Training: Which Promotes Higher Pleasure? PLoS One. 2013 Nov 26;8(11):e79965.
 Passos, GS et al. Effects of moderate aerobic exercise training on chronic primary insomnia. Sleep Med. 2011 Dec;12(10):1018-27.
 Harinath, K et al. Effects of Hatha yoga and Omkar meditation on cardiorespiratory performance, psychologic profile, and melatonin secretion. J Altern Complement Med. 2004 Apr;10(2):261-8.
 Vera, FM et al. Subjective Sleep Quality and hormonal modulation in long-term yoga practitioners. Biol Psychol. 2009 Jul;81(3):164-8.
 Geary, K et al. Effects of neck strength training on isometric neck strength in rugby union players. Clin J Sport Med. 2014 Nov;24(6):502-8.