Which is more important: Sleep or exercise?

Early-bird workouts can lead to more restful sleep, research shows

By Katie Golde/ Greatist

It’s the crack of dawn, and the alarm goes off. Time to get in that run (or yoga class or weight session) before the day begins?

The case for hitting snooze

“If you want all-around rock star health, then sleeping and working out are both important,” says Rob Sulaver, sports nutritionist and trainer at Bandana Training. Unfortunately, most Americans aren’t getting enough of either one. According to the National Institutes of Health, adults should get seven to eight hours of shut-eye each night.

And for good reason: Sleep plays a major role in your overall physical and emotional health, helping your brain function, reducing your risk of chronic disease, promoting mental well-being, and boosting your immune system. Studies also show that sleep loss is associated with increased hunger and appetite, linking a lack of zzzs with an increased risk of obesity.

Not surprisingly, feeling fatigued and sleep deprived can also affect one’s exercise performance, says Jason Edmonds, a biologist and Greatist expert. (If you’ve ever worked out while exhausted, you know how much more laborious and less productive it seems.) In fact, one study found that improving sleep habits (as in, clocking seven solid hours) might actually benefit your exercise regimen. So staying between the sheets in the early a.m. hours sounds like a good plan to be your healthiest self, right? Not so fast.

The perks of early workouts

First, there are common sense benefits to early exercise sessions: You’re more likely to hit the treadmill, park, or classroom before other options come up (Wine Wednesday, anyone?), and you won’t have to trudge to the gym after a long day at the office. Plus, exercising increases the production of endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that help relieve stress. Another study found that in warmer climates, men who exercised in the mornings had higher levels of endurance and exercise capacity than those who exercised in the evening.

Finally, early-bird workouts can lead to more restful sleep, research shows. In one study, people who worked out at 7 a.m. slept longer and had deeper sleep cycles than those who exercised at 1 p.m. or 7 p.m.4

To determine whether or not you’re sacrificing sleep in favour of sweating it out, consider how long you’re sleeping and the period of time you’re asleep, says Natalie Dautovich, PhD, a National Sleep Foundation environmental fellow. “If you find you feel fatigued during the day, that it’s difficult to concentrate or hard to wake up, then you may need to reconsider your sleep schedule.”

One way to figure out if you’re an early bird (or a night owl) is to see how your body acts without time constraints. “If you’re on vacation and you’re able to go to bed and get up when you want, see what time your body naturally awakens,” Dautovich suggests. “This can be an indicator of your natural preference for the best period of time for your body to be asleep.”

Your action plan

The decision whether to get up (or not) is based on personal preference and depends on several factors, including how much sleep you’re already getting and your ability to tweak your schedule to get in a workout at some other point in the day. Sulaver suggests asking yourself these three questions to gauge whether or not you should suck it up or stay under the covers:

Am I actually going to shut off my alarm and sleep in?

  • Can I work out any other time during the day?
  • Can I make up the workout later in the week, possibly by doing a two-a-day?

If you answer” no” to all of the above, get up and work out, Sulaver says. If you can move around your schedule and you feel like you could sleep forever, readjust your workout for another time of day.

The takeaway

“If you’re constantly deciding between working out or getting enough sleep, you’re doing it wrong,” Sulaver says. Making sure you fit in time for both good rest and exercise is equally important. Try getting up 30 minutes earlier a couple times a week to work out (and going to sleep earlier too) to slowly ease into the habit. When you’re up and at ’em, start simply with a perfect morning workout, quiet home workout, or any of our easy-to-practice bodyweight routines to kick-start your new routine.

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