Hello from Aachen, Germany! I’m writing this from an outdoor cafe in the town where my friend goes to University, and SLEEP is a relevant topic because I’m somewhat jet-lagged. Germany is 7 hours ahead of my current home in Chicago. Although I managed to get up for a short workout at 7:00 AM this morning, a few days ago I wanted to sleep in REALLY late, and barely exercised all day. Considering the time difference, and the fact that I flew overnight to Europe… I must have been pretty sleep deprived! So the question is, which is more important, sleep or exercise? If you typically workout in the morning but don’t get a full night’s sleep, should you skip your workout and sleep in?
From what I’ve read so far, the short answer is YES, you should prioritize sleep, and here’s why:
- You need your brain to exercise - Interestingly enough, acute sleep deprivation doesn’t seem to directly affect physical performance much, except at maximum intensity. However, it definitely affects mental performance. On too little sleep, you’ll probably struggle with any kind of mentally demanding exercise, such as gymnastics or another sport that requires focus and decision making. Perhaps more importantly though, you’ll be less motivated to exercise when tired (probably don’t need to tell you that!). Sleeping in could mean you miss one day of exercise but make healthier choices for the rest of the week.
- Exercise should be energizing, not exhausting - Sleep deprivation diminishes time to exhaustion and also increases perceived exertion. Everything will seem harder than usual, and you might have to cut your workout short. Not so good for confidence, and not much fun either! You’ll have a much more productive workout (meaning greater benefits from exercise, more skills learned) later in the day or the following day if you get a good night’s sleep.
- Sleep is essential for exercise recovery - Lack of sleep affects your ability to repair muscles and ligaments after your workout. By missing sleep to exercise, you're likely just causing yourself more harm instead of getting stronger. Too many early mornings and you could send your stress hormones out of whack and compromise your immune system. Exercise and lack of sleep are both forms of stress, and too much stress = not good!
All this said, exercise IS still really important (and helps you deal with mental stress), and if you’re regularly skipping workouts because you’re tired, you might not be doing yourself any good either. Regular exercise has been shown to improve the quality of sleep, leading to deeper, more restorative sleep, and can be extremely helpful for people with insomnia. What we really need is a schedule that allows us to get adequate sleep AND exercise.
The most obvious solutions:
- Go to bed earlier
- Workout later in the day
- Get up early, but take naps
Two more ideas if those don't work for you:
1. Try spreading your workout throughout the day instead of doing it all at once. Do a mini-workout when you wake up, another on your lunch break, and another at the end of the day. Burpees maybe? Or it could just be something like bodyweight squats and push-ups. I’ve seen someone doing squats in a coffee shop, so clearly a less-than-ideal location is no excuse!
2. Be super-efficient with your workouts so you only need to get up early a few (maybe 2) days a week. Depending on your exercise preferences, you might try lifting really heavy weights twice a week, or doing a high intensity circuit like these.
What does your sleep/exercise schedule look like? And do you like citation-heavy articles like this? Let me know in the comments!