I currently sleep on a mattress that has more technology embedded within it than the early NASA space capsules possessed. A few days ago, my bed sent me a judgey text telling me my sleep wasn’t great the previous night. It suggested that I step up my exercise. Sure enough, I had looked out at the icy precipitation falling the afternoon before and bagged my post-clinic run, a ritual I share every day with my dog. Well, not that day.
Sleep and exercise are very closely linked within the human body, and you don’t need a bed that can automatically place your Whole Foods grocery order to figure that out. Humans are designed to move and to sleep, and the two fundamental processes constantly influence each other.
To fully understand the connection between sleep and exercise, think back to your high school biology class. Remember the quiz you took at some point on the parts of a cell? Along with the nucleus and cytoplasm, chances are you had to label the mitochondria as “the powerhouse of the cell where energy is created.” You got extra credit if you knew what the Golgi body was responsible for.
What you learned about the mitochondria was that it was the place where the energy we acquired from our diet was converted into energy to power our bodies through the day. Walking, running, interval training with kettlebells…it all requires energy, and the mitochondria are central to that process. What you probably did not learn was that the process of creating that energy from our food creates a byproduct—a chemical called adenosine.
As we run around during the day dropping kids off at school, walking the dog, commuting to work (if that’s still a thing), and riding on our exercise bike, we are not only able to generate energy and activity from the food we eat, but we are also generating a bunch of adenosine. As adenosine builds up in our brains, it has a powerful influence on our behavior: it makes us want to sleep.
Step back for a second and appreciate the elegance in this biological design. A body that does more needs to sleep more. Just like if you drive a car hard and fast, you will consume more fuel. Our bodies are no different. So, as we work on determining the amount of sleep that is optimal for ourselves individually, exercise and general activity levels must be considered. As someone who works with many professional athletes, I have witnessed that in-season activity and training often creates more need for sleep in athletes than out of season activity levels.
And never before has this face impacted more people’s sleep than now during this very real global pandemic event. Gone are the days of getting up early to get the kids to school or meet your friends at the gym for a morning cross-fit class. Commutes to work have disappeared and our days have been reduced to a series of Zoom meetings differentiated only by the ones we need to be awake for and the ones we can nap through. The staggering lack of activity has radically changed the amount of sleep people require. This has created for many a simultaneous reduction in sleep need along with an increase in time available to sleep. Suddenly the individual who never had a problem falling asleep at 10:00 pm is finding it harder to nod off at night.
Enter exercise. As this pandemic continues without a clear end in sight, it is more important than ever to ensure that your exercise schedule is rock-solid. Getting a consistent amount of exercise at ideally a consistent time every day is more important than ever. Is your favorite gym or studio closed? It’s time to make one in your home. Miss your yoga buddies? Schedule a virtual yoga class. The point is that now is not the time to let your exercise slide…it’s time to double down on that downward dog.
Generation of sleep is not the only thing that sleep is good for promoting. Of equal importance is the timing of sleep. By establishing a consistent exercise routine, your brain gets a powerful signal every day related to biological timing or your circadian rhythm. Just like a kid groaning, “When are we going to be there?” on a long car drive help to orient her to the timing of the trip, scheduled exercise helps to orient your brain as to where it is in a 24-hour schedule. When your brain is oriented, not only does sleep happen more effectively, but EVERYTHING our bodies do happens more effectively. Nothing happens accidentally when it comes to biological timing. That doesn’t mean that without the right signaling, timing can’t get a bit off!
Finally, sleep promotes the production of many neurotransmitters that influence mood, attention, focus, memory, and attention. All of this sums to make us more happy, well-adjusted, productive, and connected to those around us. “Chris, I can tell you’re getting irritable. Put the laptop down and go run with the dog. You’ll feel better.” Never have more truer words been spoken. Ever worked out and been angry afterward that you took the 30 minutes out of your day to do it? Me either, and whatever time I lose on road I more than make up for via better focus and efficiency when I return.
In summary, it’s tough to improve or optimize sleep if exercise is not a regular part of our lives. From the generation of sleep drive to influencing the predictable timing of sleep, exercise does it all and makes us feel emotionally better in the process. And this is very important, because healthy exercise and healthy sleep lead to healthy individuals which is the ultimate goal. Well, that and not disappointing our robot beds.
Dr. Chris Winter is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist. In addition to helping numerous adults and children with their sleep problems he is an advisor to many professional sports organizations including the 2020 World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. He is the author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It as well as the upcoming book The Rested Child: Why Your Tired, Wired, or Irritable Child May Have a Sleep Disorder—And How To Help.