Exercise is often considered a virtual fountain of youth if used in the right way. Muscle, for example, is a reservoir for anti-aging hormones that help to protect your DNA from oxidation. The research shows that you can stay younger, longer if you have more lean muscle on your body.
How does exercise relate to sleep? Well, the two go together like peanut butter and jelly. You actually don’t get in shape at the gym while you’re exercising. You’re literally tearing down your body while working out, increasing inflammatory biomarkers and creating thousands of micro-tears in your muscle fibers. When you leave the gym, you’re actually in worse shape than when you came in.
The secret is that your body transforms from your workout while you’re asleep. This is when your body releases all of the beneficial hormones and elicits repair programs to build you up better than before. You just exposed yourself to a significant healthy stressor with a workout, but you only get the reward if you properly rest and recover.
The big issue for many people is that they are turning this healthy stressor into an unhealthy stressor. Add exercise to the already big list of work issues, family issues, unpaid bills, poor diet, mental and emotional struggles, etc., and this creates what’s known as your overall stress load. Your stress load is the compilation of stress in your life. Stress doesn’t have to be bad, but when you put yourself under too much you can breakdown.
Exercise can be amazing for you. As a matter of fact, it’s essential to being the healthiest version of yourself. You get so many positive benefits from improving insulin sensitivity, to boosting healthy hormone function and metabolism. But, when it’s placed on top of an already overwhelming stress load, it can lead to some significant problems.
It’s not so much the exercise itself, but the when and how the exercise is done. To optimize your sleep, you’ve got to utilize a few principles when it comes to working out.
Night Time is Not the Right Time
A recent study at Appalachian State University found that morning workouts are ideal if you want to get the best sleep at night. Researchers tracked the sleep patterns of participants who worked out at three different times: 7 a.m., 1 p.m., or 7 p.m.
What they discovered was that people who exercised at 7 a.m. slept longer and had a deeper sleep cycle than the other two groups. In fact, the morning exercisers had up to 75 percent more time in the reparative “deep sleep” stage at night. This is so impressive, and a huge leverage point if you’re interested in a longer life and a better body.
This may be counterintuitive for people who believe that you can fall asleep faster after going through a tough workout. One of the big issues with working out late in the evening is that it significantly raises your core body temperature, and it can take upwards of five to six hours for it to come down again. Your body goes through a process called thermoregulation to lower your core temperature to create the optimal environment for sleep. By artificially raising your core temperature with a workout too close to bedtime, you can prevent yourself from getting the best sleep possible.
But, no need to be worried if you choose to workout later in the day. It’s been found that when your core temperature comes down after exercise, it actually goes a little bit lower than it normally would. So, if you time things up intelligently, this can be money when it comes to getting the best sleep.
Exercising in the late afternoon/early evening is a great idea from a thermoregulation perspective. If you workout at 4:30 p.m., for example, it can set you up nicely to hit the hay at 10:00 p.m. The stress hormones secreted from your workout have subsided, your parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” system) has had time to take over, and your core temperature has dropped down to set the optimal internal environment for sleepy time.
If you had to pick a time, morning is the best when it comes to sleep, early evening can provide some benefit, and smack-dab in the afternoon showed little to no benefit at all. Exercise and movement is important no matter when you do it, but we have natural hormonal cycles that we need to honor if we’re going to get the most from it.
As you can see from the above chart, we have a big spike of cortisol in the early morning that is for the sole purpose of us doing activity. It gradually drops during the day and bottoms out when it’s our natural time to get to sleep. Working out at 1 o’clock in the morning is cute for a Facebook status to show your dedication, but it’s plum dumb when it comes to protecting your mind and body from the deleterious effects of stress.
And, it’s not just about staying up late and working out in the evening, it’s also foolish to interrupt your sleep to get up at 3 a.m. to go trudge along on the treadmill. Your natural hormone cycles are not designed to be up at those hours going hard in the gym. Take full advantage of this knowledge and structure your life in a way that you exercise at the best time to have the body and health you deserve. You have more power in this than you think. Remember, we are not just products of our environment; we are creators of our environment!
Insane in the Membrane
I had a client a few years back that moved here from France to go to college. He came to work with me in the gym and had some very specific physical goals that he wanted to accomplish. After doing an analysis, I found out that he had been suffering from a sleeping disorder for about eight years. He typically didn’t sleep more than four hours a night, and he was diagnosed with clinical insomnia.
I can tell you, it was written all over his face and body. I said to him, “I can kick your butt all day in the gym, but you’ll never get the body you want until you get this sleep component in order.” He was reluctant to focus on it because it had been so difficult for him in the past, but he agreed to try a few of my suggestions.
Instead of the long-duration cardio he used to do, I banned him from cardio temporarily. We focused on heavy, superset-style strength training. His workouts were short, but intense, and within days everything changed. He came in to see me about a week after he started training with me and said, “I don’t know what you did, but I slept like a baby. This was quite transformative for him, and his life was changed forever.
Number one, I made sure that he didn’t train after 5 p.m. Number two, I made sure that he avoided long-duration catabolic exercise that could potentially overload his endocrine and nervous systems.
Conventional moderate pace jogging is the mother of all long-duration catabolic exercise. You’re keeping your sympathetic nervous system firing continuously for the 30 minutes or so that you’re jogging, plus all of the stress hormones you secrete don’t get a chance to be broken down and eliminated—they build up in your body like a balloon being filled with too much water.
Can running be good for you? Absolutely. But, it comes with some important caveats. We’ve been mislead to believe that “cardio” in the form of jogging for long time periods is the ideal way to lose fat. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. Running for long distances can radically increase muscle loss through a process called gluconeogenesis. Muscle is your body’s fat-burning machinery, and if you lose it by running too much, you will depress your metabolism and find that if you don’t keep running you’ll start getting fat very quickly.
The biggest caveat is that you should do long distance running only if you truly love it. If the purpose of your running is not for fat loss, but instead, it’s meditative and something that you just enjoy, then go for it! Just be aware and be smart about it, and make sure that you do some of the other stuff you’re about to learn.
Quality over Quantity
To get the best hormonal response, you need to lift heavy weights. This will trigger your body to secrete more anabolic hormones that will enable you to feel better, look better, and sleep better.
Most men have no issues with this, but many women still have the idea that lifting heavy weights will make them “bulky.” The reality is that most men who lift weights like crazy struggle to put on size. So, unless you’re taking a steroid cocktail and eating like it’s your full-time job, you don’t have to worry at all about getting bulky.
As a matter of fact, if you lose weight through the traditional way of dieting and cardio, you’ll simply be able to go from an apple shape to a smaller apple shape. By lifting weights you can actually change your body’s composition, and potentially go from an apple shape to an hourglass shape. Lifting weights enables you to express your true genetic potential. Your genes expect you to lift heavy things, and when you do that your body changes accordingly.
Bottom line, lifting weights doesn’t make you big, eating a large amount of food makes you big. Lifting weights won’t make you big and bulky, chocolate croissants will make you big and bulky.
To optimize my former insomniac client’s sleep, I had him lift weights for just three 30-minute sessions per week. He dropped body fat, improved his health biomarkers, and most importantly got the sleep he really required.
Train Smart Power Tip
Take out a schedule and block off specific appointment times for you to workout using the info above. You can set a time for the morning or evening, just ensure that you’re giving yourself the best advantage for getting great sleep. If you’re really serious about being the healthiest person you can be, you’ll set your personal exercise appointment time first, and then schedule everything else around it.