Doctors say for better sleep hygiene, aim to exercise about three times a week.

By Mary Anderson
September 16, 2020
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Science shows that exercise increases the total amount of sleep you get, particularly the amount of slow-wave sleep, the restorative phase preceding REM (rapid eye movement), during which brain and body rejuvenate most.

“The hypothesis is that slow-wave sleep is associated with decreased core body temperature,” says Cinthya Pena Orbea, M.D., a sleep disorders specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. “When you exercise, your core body temperature increases, which tends to decrease your body temperature even more at night.” Although many studies have looked at moderate cardio as the sweet spot, “we generally say that whatever your body tolerates is the amount of exercise you should be doing,” says Dr. Pena Orbea. Meaning if you’re into high-intensity training, that does the trick too. In fact, she says, exercising about three times a week should be part of your sleep hygiene. (More on that here: How Sleep and Exercise Are Connected)

The bedtime magic of exercise extends beyond its impact on your slow-wave phase. A new analysis of studies on exercise and sleep in healthy older adults in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity says that those who do strength training fall asleep faster and wake up less frequently throughout the night, and yoga exercises are potent when stress prevents you from nodding off. (See: The Mental Benefits of Yoga)

Those results hold true for younger adults too, says lead study author Julie Vanderlinden, M.D., a public health scientist and sleep therapist. “A combination of exercises showed the highest proportion of significantly improved sleep outcomes,” she says. And the more consistent you are over time the better: Exercising three times per week for 12 weeks and beyond got the best results.

That's where this workout comes in. Luke Milton, the founder of Training Mate studio in Los Angeles, put together a mini routine for the latest Shape Studio video installment that would deliver on many fronts. “A healthy lifestyle is equal parts physical health, social health, and mental health,” Milton says. “Sleep plays such a big role in all three of those.”

His approach gets you in the moderate exercise zone by working lower-body muscles and then upper-body muscles. “It’s effectively moving oxygenated blood cells between the major muscle groups,” he says. What that does is also release “all these good feelings” of the exercise high — and the stress that can mess with your sleep later. Milton follows up each lower-upper pair with a “body-opening movement,” like a cobra pose to a downward dog and back again. The target: Your tight hips. “Range-of-movement exercises actually alleviate the pain and tension associated with that part of the body. If you do that, straightaway you’re getting a better night’s sleep,” he says. (Want more stretches? Add try these yoga poses to loosen up tight hips.)

Strength & Stretching Workout for Better Sleep

How it works: Do each move for 45 seconds each without resting between moves. Repeat the circuit a second time.

You'll need: a pair of light- to medium-weight dumbbells, or any weighted household objects.

Curl and Press

A. Start standing with a dumbbell in each hand, arms by sides, palms facing in.

B. Curl dumbbells up to shoulders, palms still facing in, elbows tight to ribs.

C. Press dumbbells overhead so dumbbells stack directly over shoulders, keeping core engaged.

D. Reverse the movement to return to start.

Repeat for 45 seconds.

Sumo Squat

A. Stand with feet wide and toes pointed out at 45-degree angles. Hold a single dumbbell (or another weighted object) horizontally in both hands in front of chest.

B. Inhale to bend knees and hinge at hips to lower into a squat, making sure knees track over toes. Pause when hips are at knee height.

C. Exhale to press through the midfoot to stand and return to start.

Repeat for 45 seconds. 

Cobra Pose to Downward Dog

A. Lie face-down on the floor. Place palms under shoulders and press into hands to straighten arms and lift chest off the floor. Pull shoulders away from ears and relax glutes.

B. Lift hips and roll over the tops of feet to move into downward dog, forming an upside-down "V" shape with body. Drop heels toward the floor and relax head between arms.

C. Shift hips forward to return to cobra.

Repeat for 45 seconds.

Bent-Over Triceps Extension

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand hanging by sides. Bend knees slightly and hinge forward at the hips so torso is at a 45-degree angle. Row dumbbells up toward ribs, elbows in tight to start.

B. Straighten arms and squeeze triceps to extend dumbbells backward.

C. Pause for a second, then return to start.

Repeat for 45 seconds.

Reverse Lunge

A. Start standing with feet together, a dumbbell in each hand by sides. Roll shoulders back and down and engage core to assume proper posture.

B. Take a big step back with the right foot to lower into a lunge, bending both knees at 90 degrees. Stop just before back knee touches the ground. 

C. Push off the rear foot to step it forward and return to start.

D. Repeat on the other side. Continue alternating.

Repeat for 45 seconds.

Tripod Adductor Stretch

A. Start on hands and knees on the floor. Extend the right leg out to the side, balancing on the right heel.

B. Push hips back to feel a stretch in the inside of the right thigh. If this is too easy, lower onto elbows.

C. Ease hips forward to return right knee to the ground. Switch sides; repeat.

Repeat for 45 seconds.