Exercise at night

Experts Say Don’t Lose Any Sleep Worrying About It

Whether exercise is a commitment you are making in the New Year or you already consider yourself dedicated, its benefits are indisputable. Regular physical activity helps with lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and helps to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses and disease. It also improves your mood, sleep, and appearance. Yet, exactly when an individual should exercise remains a question.

When Should I Exercise?

Research has provided conflicting results over the years regarding the early bird versus the night owl when it comes to working out – especially when a person is trying to establish the habit or covets an adequate night’s rest. In a recent study, however, data shows that working out in the evening is not detrimental to the quality of one’s sleep.

Incorporating exercise into your life is important for your general health, period. So if nighttime is the only time to squeeze in your workout, experts say the benefits outweigh any disadvantages. If you’re still concerned, data said sleep interruptions can be mitigated by carefully choosing the activity and the intensity at which you work.

Here are some tips to avoid potential problems you might face after exercising at night.

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Feel the Burn and Catch Your Zzzz’s?

The Institute of Human Movement Sciences and Sport at ETH Zurich conducted several studies to evaluate the effects of exercising at night. They determined that how soon you to bed after exercise may negatively impact your quality of sleep. Interestingly, the window of affect is approximately four hours `see diagram`. The exception? The intensity of training and that one hour between your sweat sessions and hitting the sheets, according to the analysis of 23 studies. The reason being that virous training within one hour of turning in is detrimental to sleep patterns.

Data also showed that the night following an evening of sports activity, deep sleep was accomplished by 21.2 percent, while an evening without exercise yielded deep sleep for only 19.9 percent. While small, the nighttime exercisers experienced more of a deep sleep phase. This is critical for muscle and cellular recovery. According to sports physicians, moderate exercise in the evening is no problem and not the sole cause of sleep issues or disturbances. However, virous training should happen earlier in the day for optimal recovery time.

Since not everyone is affected by exercise the same way or works out with the same intensity, it’s advised that you listen to your body. Identify patterns, and observe any outside factors that could contribute to insomnia or sporadic sleep (such as diet, sound, light, and room temperature). It’s already been proven that exercise improves sleep quality. For anyone still on the fence about “should I or shouldn’t I” work out in the evening, consider your intensity.

The study revealed it took participants who completed an intense exercise session longer to fall asleep due to the physiological effects. First, it increases your heart rate – on average 20 beats higher per minute than those who didn’t exercise before bed.  Intense exercise also elevates body temperature and brain activity. When you consider the release of adrenaline (our performance hormone secreted during a “fight or flight” situation) from exercise, whether it’s a run on the treadmill or a yoga session, your body isn’t exactly shifting into sleep mode.

Moderate vs. Intense Exercise

It takes the body between four to five hours for our core temperature to decrease, as well allowing enough time for all systems to basically wind down. As a result, some people fore working out altogether for fear of compromising their zzzz’s. We’re told to power down electronics at least one hour before bed due to the stimulation it provides. Logic would indicate stimulating the body and mind before bed could hurt rather than help us sleep better and longer.

“Not so fast,” says just about any medical expert. Research has shown that mind-body and moderate exercises such as yoga and stretching and even a walk may help to lower cortisol levels and reduce blood pressure, as well as improving your mood and contributing to an overall sense of relaxation.

Exercise provides us with energy and stamina, but also is proven to boost restorative sleep, which in turn, enhances our well-being in the forms of immune function and cardiac health. Consistent exercise also has been proven to control anxiety and stress, which everyone feels at some point during their lives.

Know Your Numbers: Maximum and Target Heart Rate

Whether you’re an athlete or someone who just wants to feel and look better, the level at which you work out is important. So is knowing how to achieve your goals and stay safe. A big part of that is understanding your heart rate. Depending on whether you’re looking to burn fat, improve your cardiovascular system, or simply boost your mood, your target heart rate zone can indicate if you should slow down or step it up.

To estimate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. This will give you the highest rate at which your heart should be pushed during physical activity. The different ranges or zones affect the body in different ways, producing specific results. However, you categorize these zones (most are referred to as high, medium, and low), it still comes down to intensity.

Age Target HR Zone 50-85% Average Maximum Heart Rate, 100%
20 years 100-170 beats per minute (bpm) 200 bpm
30 years 95-162 bpm 190 bpm
35 years 93-157 bpm 185 bpm
40 years 90-153 bpm 180 bpm

Virous Exercise Intensity

Virous activity is one that is very challenging. You’re working out at 85 to 100 percent of your max heart rate – the level of intensity NOT advised one hour or less before going to bed. Workouts considered virous are running, HITT (High Intensity Interval Workouts), Spinning (such as Soul Cycle®), kickboxing, or aerobic dance to name a few. You are exercising at virous intensity if:

  • Your breathing is deep and rapid.
  • You develop a sweat after only a few minutes of activity.
  • You can’t say more than a few words without pausing for breath.

Moderate Exercise Intensity

One step below the virous or peak zone is the cardio zone. Most of us fall within this range either with our chosen cardio activity or weight-lifting routines. Here, you are working out hard and your heart rate is 70 to 84 percent of its maximum and fall within the medium-to-high intensity exercise zone. In this zone, you’re pushing yourself but not straining. For most, this is the place you want to remain to burn calories safely, improve your cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength, as well as your stamina.

Exercises may include walking, bicycling, swimming, tennis, hiking, jogging, or aerobics. This is the best fat burning zone and anyone interested in losing weight is advised to do a minimum of four to six moderate-intensity cardio sessions each week for at least 30 to 45 minutes. The “slow burn,” as it’s often called, keeps the heart rate in the lower end of the range and doesn’t exceed 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Moderate activity feels somewhat hard. If you are exercising at a moderate level, you can expect:

  • Your breathing to quicken, but you’re not out of breath.
  • To develop a light sweat after about 10 minutes of activity.
  • The ability to can carry on a conversation, but you can’t sing.

Other components to consider when figuring out your target heart range are temperature, humidity, and stress level on the body (intensity), caffeine intake, hormonal shifts such as pregnancy or menopause, and any medication use. All can affect your heart rate, as well as underlying medical conditions so I advise my patients to always consult with me or another medical professional before starting or changing their exercise routine.

It’s important to note that maximum heart rate ranges are a general guide. Just as some people respond differently to various exercises, people also may have a higher or lower maximum heart rate, sometimes by as much as 15 to 20 beats per minute. If you want a more definitive range for a more specific al, discuss your target heart rate zone with an exercise physiologist or a personal trainer.

Moderate intensity exercise shortly before bedtime does not negatively affect sleep. At most, virous exercise close to bedtime might have a negative effect. Each symbol in this overview represents one set of experimental data. (Credit: Jan Stutz/ETH Zurich)

Benefits of Exercise

While the study showed that only intense exercise performed less than an hour before bedtime influenced the time it takes to fall asleep, total sleep time (how long you’re asleep), and sleep efficiency (staying asleep), consider the ways in which regular physical exercise improves not only one’s quality of sleep but also quality of life.

I recommend exercising 150 minutes every week, which can be broken down into five days of 30 minutes of your chosen activity. Given that 20 percent of the U.S. population works out within four hours of bedtime, choose that moderately intense activity if sleep disruptions are a concern rather than avoid working out altogether. Regular exercise has proven health benefits including:

  1. Improving sleep quality – physical activity expends energy in good ways. Remember when you were a kid and played outside only to hit the hay hard that night? It was easier to fall asleep and stay asleep as a child, probably because we moved more and worried less. The same rule applies as an adult. When you tire your body with activity, and allow for adequate recovery, you welcome rest at the end of the day. Keep in mind, however, a regular exercise is best in establishing quality sleep and overall health benefits. Conversely, the better your sleep hygiene, the more energized you feel and prepared for your activity the next day.
  2. Reduce stress – Too often we don’t take enough time for ourselves. We bear the burdens of others, including meeting work demands, financial obligations, and the needs of our families and friends. Exercising gives us at least 30 minutes to focus on the activity and clear the mind, while burning calories or increasing your cardiovascular fitness. During exercise you release the “feel good” chemicals known as endorphins. These natural pain killers improve our sleep and our mindset and can be as effective at fighting low-grade depression as medications. Once you are able to shut off your mind of looping worries or “to-do” lists, turning out the lights and falling into a sound, restful sleep becomes common.
  3. Reduces Risk of Disease: Regular physical activity boosts the “good cholesterol” known as HDL, while decreasing unhealthy triglycerides, which can result in clogged arteries. In doing so, blood flows easily in the arteries rather than fighting against plaque buildup thereby reducing cardiovascular disease. Regular exercise also helps reduce the risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, many types of cancer, as well as falls.
  4. Reduces risk of obesity: When you’re in a healthy weight range according to your age, gender, and height, your level of fitness puts you ahead of most peers simply because you’re not adding to the risk of type 2 diabetes, often caused by obesity, as well as helping to avoid arthritis by moving your joints and staying active. Exercise isn’t only about looking great for a big event or fitting into a specific pair of jeans. Maintaining or achieving a healthy weight is good for every organ and system.
  5. Improves memory and learning: A recent Harvard study found that exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain connected to our memory and learning. Participating in only 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day was enough to help prevent the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
  6. Improved energy: Exercise itself helps the body work more efficiently by delivering oxygen and nutrients to your tissues and organs. In turn, your heart and lung health improve giving you have more energy all day every day. If you’re new to working out it may seem like a chore, but once it becomes habit, household chores become easier and if you stick with it, you likely will discover when you don’t exercise, you feel sluggish.

It’s really a personal choice

So, while the benefits of exercise may be black and white, is there still a gray area when it comes to the best time to engage in physical activity? Ultimately, more studies need to be done comparing numerous variables, but the current consensus is that people can exercise in the evening without negative consequences. The data shows moderate exercise in the evening is no problem at all, according the lead author of the ETH Zurich study. And in a 2013 National Sleep Foundation’s “Sleep in America” poll, the sleep habits of 1,000 participants were studied, and more than 80 percent of people who exercised at any time of day (including late at night) reported sleeping better than those who didn’t exercise at all.

Additionally, more than 50 percent of virous and moderate exercisers slept better on days when they worked out than they did on those days when exercise was ignored. Only 3 percent of late-day exercisers indicated poor sleep on days when they exercised, compared to days when they didn’t.

The verdict? Listen to your body and do what’s best for you and your lifestyle, personal preference and goals. Any fitness routine will benefit you in the short-term and long run. If you are a diabetic, have more than one risk factor for heart disease, or are a man over age 45 or a woman over age 55, it’s important to talk with your doctor before starting a virous exercise program in case a stress test is needed and certainly to make sure you embark on the right track, path, lane, or court. Dusk or dawn lace up your sneakers and start – or finish – your day off on the right foot!

If exercise is affecting your sleep, talk to your primary care provider.

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UPMC Pinnacle is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Pinnacle includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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