What’s the Better Way to Boost Your Energy: Sleep or Exercise?

You already know that sleep and exercise both help you keep sickness and disease at bay, feel your best, and maximize your energy day-to-day. But you’re busy, and some days, something has to go: You can either bask in a restorative eight hours of sleep, or squeeze in a late-night or early-morning workout that gets the endorphins flowing, but cuts into your rest when you need it most.

Neither option is ideal, but we’ve all found ourselves slumped at the kitchen table after a long day of work, facing this lesser-of-two-evils dilemma. When that moment arises, it’s good to understand more about how the processes of sleep and exercise affect your energy, so you can make the smartest choice, case by case.

How Your Body Creates Energy in the First Place

At some point in your life, you likely learned about the Krebs cycle. If not, here’s the TL;DR, as explained by W. Christopher Winter, M.D., Men’s Health sleep advisor and author of The Sleep Solution:

In order to run a marathon (or, honestly, get through a Tuesday), you need a certain amount of caloric energy. The Krebs cycle—aka TCA or citric acid cycle—is a series of bodily reactions that generate said energy in your body. The mitochondria (the powerhouse of cells) break down adenosine triphosphate (ATP, often described as the body’s energy currency) in order to release, store, and utilize that energy. The more you know! Now, why is this important? Excellent question.

The Case for Sleep

Exhibit A: Sleep is fundamental

“Sleep is a fundamental drive,” Dr. Winter says. In short: You need it to live. One of the byproducts of the aforementioned ATP breakdown process is a chemical called adenosine, he explains, which accumulates in the body and eventually creates a strong drive to sleep.

“The longer you go without sleep and the more energy you produce, the more your body becomes driven to sleep to the point where it will become involuntary,” Dr. Winter says. When you sleep, your body clears out adenosine, leaving you energized and naturally less sleepy.


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Exhibit B: Sleep keeps you balanced

Research finds that sleep increases protein synthesis and the mobilization of free fatty acids to provide your body with energy, replenishes glucose stores in your neurons (the body’s most important source of energy), and balances everything from how you feel emotionally and mentally (when you sleep, your brain processes emotions) to how hungry you are (hence why you want to chow down burgers when you’re sleep deprived).

This work is part of the body’s innate checks and balances system: Every process in the human body has a mechanism in place to control and balance it, from hormones to alert you to hunger and fullness, or reactions to create and dampen inflammation. This physiological stabilization maintains homeostasis and keeps you healthy.

Exhibit C: Sleep restores everything, not just energy

“Sleep plays a huge role in maintaining that balance,” Dr. Winter explains. “Not only in terms of metabolism, but in terms of the immune system, the ability to regulate organs such as your heart and brain, and more.”

It is, in part, why there are higher instances of cancer and disease in the chronically sleep-deprived, and why shift work is considered a carcinogen. “Those regulatory mechanisms that have abilities to fix our bodies just are not there [when you are sleep-deprived],” says Dr. Winter.

The Case for Exercise

Exhibit A: Exercise makes you feel good

Exercise absolutely matters to energy, it just falls lower than sleep on the priority list. It’s not a “fundamental” need like hydration or rest, Dr. Winter says.

However, exercise undoubtedly has a positive impact on motivation and mood. That jacked-up, ready-to-take-on-the-world feeling after a good workout is absolutely real. A good gym session has been linked to improved cognitive function and concentration, which could give you the energy you need to power through your day. You can thank feel-good hormones like endocannabinoids and endorphins for all that.

Exhibit B: Exercise helps you sleep better

Exercise also connects to sleep in productive ways. For example, multiple studies have found links between people who don’t sleep well and those who spend less time exercising; a 2017 review of research also found exercise to be an effective intervention for the sleep-deprived, suggesting moderate aerobic or resistance-type training could help you sleep better (and, indirectly, help you feel more energized because you’re sleeping more).

But a sleep-deprived workout isn’t going to deliver top-notch results. Inadequate sleep can limit muscle strength and increase the risk of exercise-induced injuries, research finds.

The Verdict

Exercise when you can, but you probably need more sleep

Despite all of this energy creation that takes place while we snooze, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately one in three Americans doesn’t get those necessary hours of sleep for optimal health. So if you’re debating between getting up for a 5 a.m. workout or hitting snooze until you’ve clocked those eight hours, Dr. Winter says you should opt for sleep. If you do, you’ll be better energized and equipped for the day ahead. And your workout will be all the better because you’re well-rested—whenever you’re able to squeeze it in.

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