What Research Shows About Physical Activity & Insomnia

Move more to sleep better!

By: Jessica Migala

There are probably a lot of questions swirling around your mind if you can’t get to sleep. Chief among them: Why can’t I sleep? Am I just going to stay up all night? 

Reasons for the lack of shut-eye range from drinking too much caffeine too close to bedtime, staring bleary-eyed at your screen while you scroll TikTok for hours in bed, and a ticker-tape of anxious thoughts parading through your mind. But another reason might also have to do with exercise — or lack thereof.

Here’s what you need to know about what the research shows about the connection between physical activity and insomnia —plus, how you can move more to snag more restful shut-eye.

What is Insomnia?

Simply put, insomnia is a sleep disorder. If you have insomnia, it might manifest in various ways. Maybe it’s tough to fall asleep, or maybe you fall asleep just fine, but your eyes pop open in the middle of the night and you can’t get back to sleep. 

There are so many reasons for insomnia, like a sudden stressor — a job loss or impending deadlines, the death of a loved one, or an upcoming move. Sometimes that stress can be a good, fun thing, like you’ve been traveling and jet lag is keeping you up at night. But often, this type of insomnia goes away once the stress eases up or your body clock readjusts. According to one study, 27% of people experience this type of insomnia in a given year, and most of them go back to their normal sleep habits.

For many people, though, insomnia sticks around long-term, and your body learns to be awake at night, making your sleep struggles even worse. This is called chronic insomnia, which is defined as sleep struggles that happen at least three nights per week for more than three months.

What a Study Uncovered About Physical Activity & Insomnia 

You’ve no doubt heard about sleep hygiene — these are the things you do before bed, like giving your bedroom a zen-vibe with a dark and quiet environment, turning off electronics, and going to bed and waking up at a consistent time. (Yep, even on weekends.) But what you do during the day matters, too, and one of the best things for your sleep at night is exercising.

A new study supports this thought: The research, published in BMJ Open, analyzed 4,339 adults ages 39 to 67 across nine countries in Europe. People who said they exercised at least twice a week for one hour or longer were 40% less likely to have problems going to sleep, 29% less likely to say they slept fewer than six hours per night, and 47% less likely to say they slept more than nine hours per night — and this was over a 10-year period. (Both short and long sleep can be detrimental to health.)

This isn’t the first study to say sweating it out is good for your sleep. A 2021 meta-analysis of 22 randomized controlled trials concluded that regular physical activity was connected to better sleep quality, reduced insomnia symptoms, and an improvement in daytime sleepiness. 

Workouts are so sleep-friendly for a whole host of reasons: a sweat session stimulates the release of feel-good, stress-busting endorphins and mood-boosting neurotransmitters, and it also regulates your circadian rhythm (which sets your sleep-wake cycle), suggests research. In short, they fill you up with energy to stay awake during the day and help you feel sleepy and de-stressed at night so you can get to bed. Getting in that workout allows you to crush it at work or in life in general. 

Why Getting Enough Sleep is So Important 

Sleep and exercise are a powerful duo — you really can’t have one without the other. So, while exercise helps you sleep, you also need enough sleep (aim for at least 7 hours, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in order to have a productive workout the next day. If you’re sleepy and dragging, you’re less likely to want to exercise, after all. 

At the same time, you don’t want to sacrifice sleep, even for a cardio or strength session. Meaning, that if you plan to wake up to press play on an A.M. workout, you’ll want to go to bed at a time that will allow you at least 7 hours of sleep. So, count backward from your wake-up time and try to go to bed then — set a “bedtime” alarm if it helps you stick to it. Skimping on sleep — even if it is for a healthy habit like exercise — can backfire by changing your appetite hormones, research shows, which could make it more difficult to stick to a healthy eating plan.

RELATED: How Better Sleep Can Change Your Life

The Takeaway 

Exercise is great for sleep. If you’re struggling with shut-eye, getting into a consistent exercise routine is even more important. You’ll burn off some stress, raise your mood and energy levels, and decrease anxiety noise at night. And with better sleep, you’ll be more ready to rock your workout tomorrow.