“Exercise…” That word has a way of striking fear in even the strongest of humans. Especially when we get to the New Year and the promises we make to ourselves to do more of it seem to float away on the wind. Being active goes beyond just moving our body, sweating to lose weight or tone muscles, and getting ready to wear a bathing suit in the summer. Yes, I wrote “bathing suit.” Do. Not. Judge. Me. We also exercise our “minds” and that in addition to various things we do physically are great for helping us sleep better.
As we enter 2022 and look for ways to encourage more self-care and awareness, we at Sleep Club thought we’d share some great exercises that not only support the body but open up the mind to welcome rest and relaxation. These are just some of our favorites with a touch of reasoning behind why they work.
First things first: why “exercise” for sleep?
There are varying ideas behind why exercising is good for sleep. While it is proven that moving your body definitely helps you get a better night’s rest, a lot of this is observational. It’s not as if there is some sort of scientific formula we can point to that says, “Yes! There it is. Physical eXercise + NEtym = zzzzz.” In practical terms, however, exercising regularly boosts a healthy circadian rhythm and lowers your stress level. Alleviating the pressure of your day helps you quiet your mind, making it easy for you to rest when bedtime comes rather than having all your thoughts rushing at you and keeping you awake. You’re also exerting a lot of energy when you work your body and that means you’ll naturally feel more relaxed and ready to slumber at night.
As far as the mental exercise, the ability to focus your brain and actively slow your breathing makes it possible for you to “let go” — as it were — of whatever happened in the day. Whenever we do this, we lower our heart rates, calm our brain and breath, and relax our muscles. This takes away our stress and in so doing, sleep follows easily and readily.
With that being said, here are some ideas to get those body and mind muscles pumping so you can get some quality shut-eye. What we love about these is they are physical and mental exercise twofers — while you’re working your body, you’re engaging and relaxing your brain.
Humans have a natural relationship with water — we're drawn to it, and it soothes and calms us. Swimming as a physical activity is not only one of the best forms of exercise out there — it engages every muscle, burns tons of calories, and is low-impact — but the feeling and sound of the water moving around you relaxes the mind. There’s a sort of zen to all of this, the rhythm of each stroke, the consistency of the form, just moving through the water physically works us and mentally focuses us. Floating, just wading with eyes closed, allows you to sink (not literally) into a quiet, meditative state. Because swimming — or, more accurately, engaging in water activity — is high-cardio with low-impact, it is an exercise that is easily accessible to just about anyone. Its ability to gently push your muscles to that point of healthy fatigue and engage your mind to lower your stress means when bedtime comes, you are genuinely ready for a restful sleep. It’s a winning combination.
The action of picking up a bow and arrow is considered a martial art. It’s up there with Tai Chi and meditation as one of the most centering of mind/body/spirit activities, and a great way to support a healthy sleeping life. Every part of your body and mind have to be in sync when you perform this art and when done correctly, it is calming and freeing. Everytime you raise your bow, you take a cleansing breath before you shoot, relax your muscles, free your mind to focus on the target, then flow through the movements to lift, pull, visualize and release. It’s like a dance and one that uses a ton of muscles — back, abs, triceps, biceps, shoulders, to name a few — and all of your brain. You are completely present when you are engaged in archery, and with the physical activity itself along with the meditative aspect, it’s been discovered that it creates a perfect storm of pushing your muscles just enough that they are appropriately tired out, your mind is clear and calm, and when night falls, you’re in a good state for a healthy sleep.
Aerobic + Resistance Training (aka Weight Training) = Sweet Slumber
It’s true there is no scientific formula for exercise benefiting your sleep pattern, but putting these two together naturally gives you a better night’s rest. The way they work your body and focus your mind creates a supportive physical and mental bond. When we workout consistently and properly, we release endorphins to improve our mood, alleviate mental and physical stress, and develop healthy habits to support a stronger sense of well-being. At the end of our day, our body is ready for sleep, our mind is clearer to make slumber successful, and we welcome the relief. Truthfully, whether you like to do these together or you prefer aerobic over resistance training or vice-versa, doing just 30 minutes of regular anything gives you a positive boost that prepares your body and mind not only to face whatever comes your way but for rest at the end of the day.
Exercising to relax vs. to exhaustion
If we can take a moment here — remember this is about getting you to a relaxed state, not to exhaustion. There is a big difference between being tired and fatigued. Feeling tired at the end of the day is normal and it’s your body’s way of telling you, “Hey, you’ve done enough for the day, the sun is down, we’re ready to rebuild and reboot. Let’s get some sleep.” Then you snuggle under the covers, close your eyes, snooze, dream, then wake up refreshed and ready to go. Slumber will reinvigorate you so you can face another day. Fatigue emanates from deep inside your body, goes beyond feeling tired, and cannot be alleviated by sleep. Should you ever feel you have pushed yourself too far — whether while exercising or just in general — contact your physician and discuss how to better support your well-being.
Now’s the time to take it personally
Something to remember: it all comes down to personal preference. Whether it’s physical exercise or mental relaxation, listening to and getting in tune with your body and mind will tell you what works best for you. Powerlifting before bed may work for me while doing some yin yoga three hours before slumber may be your jam. Writing in a journal may help you wind down while meditation may suit me. Everyone is different and that means each of us has a unique need we must fill to succeed in slumber.
Although there are plenty of cases made for NOT exerting yourself too close to bedtime, for some it works wonders and is what they swear by. It’s your body, your life, your SLEEP. Test things out, check out whatever interests you, and ask as many questions as you need to find your right fit. Once you find what works for you in the world of sleep, it’s like a magic door opening to a more balanced sense of overall well-being.