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Sleep or exercise? Which should you choose on your busiest days?



Calah Alexander - published on 02/16/18

The dilemma is that your body needs sleep to exercise productively, and exercise to sleep well.

We’ve all been there. Your alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and you hit the snooze button, all too aware of the running shoes you laid out the night before in anticipation of a good night’s sleep before an early workout.

Whether you were kept up by a teething baby, late-night emails, or an ill-advised Netflix binge, you’re still facing the same dilemma: sleep or exercise? But as sleep expert Dr. Charles Czeisler notes in the New York Times, that’s a terrible choice.

Sleep is important for workouts, he noted, reducing the risk of injury and allowing muscles to recover from exercise. Lack of sleep weakens the immune system, making people more likely to become sick — which means missing workouts. Sacrificing sleep has also been tied to weight gain, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among other health problems. Of course, regular exercise provides a lot of benefits, too, including sounder sleep.

Of course, it’s easy enough to think that sleep is the clear choice. But for those who suffer from insomnia or restless leg syndrome, sometimes choosing sleep over exercise ends up being counterproductive as well.

When I go a few days without exercising, my sleep is the first thing to suffer. I have trouble falling asleep and wake often, making me more tired during the day and even less inclined to get a workout in. The only thing that helps reset my system and guarantee a good night’s sleep is a long, hard workout.

But the other thing Dr. Czeisler points out is that waking up after six hours of sleep to exercise is doubly counterproductive. Not only are you depriving your body of the rest it needs to recover, but you’re also forcing your muscles to exercise during their biological night.

Yep, it turns out that your muscles cells also have circadian rhythms, according to research from Northwestern University. The time of day when you choose to work out determines your muscles’ energy efficiency and metabolic response, which means that waking up early to exercise pretty much guarantees both a lackluster workout and a poor recovery.

But when your schedule is packed, as most of ours are, what’s the best way to get the sleep and the exercise your body needs?

Going to bed earlier is the obvious choice, but it’s not always feasible. On mornings when a workout means sleep loss, choosing to sleep is the best choice … but that doesn’t mean you should forego exercise entirely.

Even if your day is full, you can fit in some aerobic activity between appointments. Running up the stairs instead of taking the elevator is a quick and easy way to get your heart rate up, as is taking a break from your desk once an hour to do a quick set of burpees. You’d be surprised how quickly 5 burpees an hour can build both your strength and endurance.

You can also skip after-work cocktails and hit the gym for a half-hour on your way home — but if your kids are waiting on dinner and help with homework, change into your gym clothes before you leave the office and do the scientific 7-minute workout the second you get home. Not having to change eliminates a host of complications and distractions, and listening to some high-energy music on the drive home can get you in the right frame of mind to go all-out for those 7 minutes.

Whatever you do, don’t choose exercise over sleep. Find a way to fit both into your days, no matter how packed they are — your body and your mind will thank you for it!


Read more:
The critical change you need to make to your exercise routine as you age

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