Losing Sleep During COVID-19? Here’s Tips on How and When to Exercise That Can Help

  • Experts say exercise can help you sleep better if you’re tossing and turning during the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • They say exercising during the day is better than working out at night due to body temperature and heart rhythm fluctuations.
  • Experts add that cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and yoga are effective exercises for better sleep.
  • They also say to avoid alcohol and screen time in the hours before going to bed.

We do it about a third of our lives, and it’s important enough to dramatically affect the other two-thirds. It’s sleep.

But sleep isn’t coming easy for many people in 2020 as we deal with life-altering changes stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But experts say sleeping is still the bedrock of our lives.

“Stress can affect sleep and it is so important to get good quality sleep during this pandemic,” said Dr. Alison Mitzner, a pediatrician, writer, and mother of two. “It’s a cycle, as sleep can affect stress and stress can affect sleep. The lack of sleep can also make you more impatient and more stressed.”

“Just as diet and exercise is important for overall health, so is sleep, especially with the pandemic,” Mitzner told Healthline.

COVID-19 is affecting everyone’s body, not just those who have the virus, added Dr. Raul A. Perez-Vazquez, who practices internal medicine for Tenet Florida.

“During the pandemic and social isolation, the issue has become more prevalent,” he told Healthline. “Our cycles — temperature and circadian (body clock) — have been disrupted as we spend more time indoors, possibly not aware of the time of day.”

“Increased exposure to blue light from screens will decrease melatonin, which usually fluctuates with our circadian rhythm, also impairing sleep,” he added.

Doctors are seeing it in their patients.

“Many folks have forgotten about good sleep hygiene during the pandemic and are sleeping at all hours,” Dr. Aneesa Das, a sleep expert at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Healthline. “It’s important to get out of bed at the same time each day and try to limit time in bed to 7 to 9 hours, based on the amount of sleep one typically gets.”

“If able, avoid naps,” she added. “Or at least keep them under 20 minutes, because daytime napping can lead to nighttime insomnia.”

The right time to exercise

Since sleep is as important as diet and exercise, all three factors influence one another.

Experts say exercise can be a big factor on sleep. But timing is everything.

“To sleep better at night, get moving during the day,” said Christina Pierpaoli, a sleep researcher and committee member of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine.

“Sleep pressure — or the body’s hunger for sleep — accumulates with increasing time spent awake and dissipates with the opportunity to sleep,” she told Healthline.

“Vigorous, moderate, or even mild daytime energy expenditure in the form of cardiovascular exercise — walking, swimming, household chores, etc. — stimulates something called adenosine, which builds sleep pressure,” she said. “Daytime energy expenditure means more sleep pressure and, usually, improved sleep.”

“You can think about it like money,” Pierpaoli added. “If you have $100 and you spend $50 of it, you won’t have that money later. The same calculus applies to our energy levels. Energy spent earlier in the day means less later, translating into quicker, deeper, and more consolidated sleep.”

Body temperature is directly related to sleep and there’s a natural decline in body temperature that occurs at night to signal your body to sleep, according to Dr. Candice Seti, a licensed psychologist and certified insomnia treatment clinician.

“There are things you can do to help your body temperature trigger sleep,” Seti told Healthline. “One of them is exercise. When you exercise, your body temperature rises. That temperature rise maintains for a few hours and then it steadily starts to drop. This drop can work with your body’s natural circadian rhythm and help promote sleepiness.”

“The way to do that is to get in 30 to 45 minutes of moderate-level aerobic activity and do it about 3 to 6 hours before bedtime,” she added.

Exercising shortly before going to bed is a bad idea, experts agree.

“It can cause insomnia for many,” said Bill Fish, a certified sleep coach and managing editor of SleepFoundation.org, which recently published “Sleep Guidelines During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

“There has yet to be a conclusive study to show exactly the peak time to exercise to help with sleep, but one thing is certain: You should be completely relaxed at least 45 minutes before going to bed,” Fish told Healthline. “Meaning, if you do work out, you should be showered and back to normal body temperature at least 45 minutes prior, to give your body time to relax and prepare for rest.”

“Beyond that, as long as you are getting 30 minutes of cardio throughout the day, you put yourself in a good position to get to rest quickly,” he noted.

What exercises are best

Experts say some forms of exercise are better than others when it comes to better sleep.

“From walking to running to high intensity workouts, cardio is proven to promote better sleep,” said Dr. Bryan Bruno, the medical director of Mid City TMS, a New York City clinic that treats depression. “A walk on a treadmill or around your neighborhood is an easy way to get your cardiovascular workout for the day.”

Bruno also promotes strength training.

“While it may seem intimidating, strength training can be done in the comfort of your home,” he told Healthline.

“Pushups, bicep curls, and squats are simple and convenient strength exercises that will exhaust your muscles and enhance your sleep quality and duration,” he said. “Strength training can increase your time in deep sleep, the most restorative sleep.”

Many experts say yoga — with its meditative qualities — is the perfect workout to help with sleep patterns, even in the evening.

“If someone is struggling with falling asleep, yoga can be beneficial for insomnia at the start of the night,” Dr. Benjamin Troy, a board certified psychiatrist and medical reviewer for medical startup Choosing Therapy, told Healthline. “Yoga seems most helpful when a focus is placed on taking deep, relaxed breaths.”

Other tips that can help

Researchers say there are a number of ways for people to exercise during the pandemic to promote better sleep at night.

One way is to get up at the same time every day and exercise earlier in the day. Body temperature affects the ability to sleep — the lower, the better for sleep. Exercise raises body temperature.

Experts say not to exercise anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours before bedtime.

Do something that gets your heart rate up or breaks a sweat during the day. Daylight is good for sleep cycles.

If you have to exercise in the evening, do something meditative like yoga. Pierpaoli said studies show evening exercise can enhance deep sleep as long as it’s done at least an hour before bedtime.

Other tips for better sleep:

  • Do something relaxing before bed such as meditating, praying, or taking a warm bath at least an hour before sleep. Whatever is calming.
  • Avoid alcohol or heavy meals 2 to 4 hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid screens at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and comfortable.

“Things will get better and people can achieve good, restful sleep during this chaotic time, especially if they make reasonable attempts to prioritize sleep and practice good sleep hygiene,” Pierpaoli said.

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