Which is More Important, Sleep or Exercise?


It’s the ultimate chicken-and-egg conundrum: Sleep can give you energy, repair your muscles, balance your hormones, fuel your workout, and get you through the day while working out can help improve your sleep, boost your energy, enhance your mood, and bolster your metabolism. So if you only have 30 extra minutes to dedicate to sleep or exercise, which should you choose?


First, it’s important to point out that this “only choose one” scenario is probably not a real issue, at least for most people on most days. The reality is, most people do, in fact, have time for the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep every night plus enough time for a 30 to 60-minute workout on most days. If you don’t, it might be time to brush up on your health-related goal-setting skills. But for argument’s sake, I posed the question to Dr. Robert S. Rosenberg, Board Certified Sleep Medicine Specialist and author of Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day.

Can you guess his response?

While it might come as a surprise, the sleep doctor recommends prioritizing… sleep. And his assessment is a sound one. “Lack of exercise can certainly result in obesity and cardiovascular disease; however, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to problems such as heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, obesity and diabetes,” Rosenberg says. “When we get insufficient sleep, our body releases inflammatory mediators such as c-reactive protein, as well as excessive cortisol and adrenaline. We need sleep to clean out the toxins that build up in our brains during the day, such as beta amyloid and TAU protein, the building blocks of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Of course, it’s important to exercise regularly to live a long and healthy life, but on those days you can barely hold your eyes open, you shouldn’t feel guilty about skipping the gym and hitting the hay. Sleep can, in fact, be one of the best workouts you give your body, enabling it to rest and recover enough to hit the gym with more vigor the next day.

If you want to make your sleep routine even stronger, follow these suggestions from Dr. Rosenberg.


1. Avoid Electronics Before Bed

“Computers, cell phones, iPads, and televisions are major problems,” Rosenberg says. “People don’t realize that the blue light emitted from these devices shuts down the production of the hormone melatonin.” Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the body that typically begins to rise in mid- to late-afternoon to help encourage sleep. Blue light-emitting electronics that shut down the production of melatonin basically shut down this natural sleep aid. Try putting away the gadgets and picking up a book a couple hours before bed to naturally increase your body’s ability to sleep soundly.


2. Eat Healthfully, Especially Before Bed

Eating a package of cookies before bed isn’t just bad for your waistline, it can wreak havoc on your sleep. Every time you eat, your body responds by producing hormones that initiate the chemical reactions necessary to break down, digest, and assimilate those foods into products your body uses. “People need to realize that eating foods with a high glycemic index sets off a roller coaster reaction of excessive insulin production followed by cortisol and adrenaline to counteract the high, then low blood sugar. When your stress system is activated at night, it makes it almost impossible to fall or stay asleep,” Rosenberg says.

In other words, avoid caffeine, alcohol and high-sugar, high-carbohydrate foods in the hours before bed. While alcohol and comfort foods may help induce sleep, metabolizing these nutrients initiates your stress response which could make you wake up—and remain awake—during the wee hours of the night.


3. Consider a High-Quality Mattress

Good beds are often expensive, but when talking about your health, particularly about how you feel every single day—your energy level and your ability to take on the tasks you want to accomplish—a high-quality mattress is worth the investment. “Several good studies have shown that Sleep Number beds and memory foam mattresses improve sleep quality versus the old box spring,” Rosenberg says.


This is particularly true if you’re an active individual. Sleep is when your body rests, recovers, and recuperates. It’s when your muscles rebuild and repair. It’s when your brain and body assimilate the information you’ve accumulated throughout the day, creating new neural pathways and connections.


In fact, in a study conducted by the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, the Stanford basketball team’s skills were put to the test based on extended sleep patterns. After a period of normal sleep, the players went through a multi-week sleep extension period. At the end of the sleep extension period, shooting accuracy and sprint times improved significantly, as did overall feelings of mental and physical well-being.

Given the research in this area, it comes as no surprise that some mattress companies are targeting the fitness and sports markets to enhance sleep quality for the specific purpose of improving athletic performance. Essentia, for example, created a custom ProCor bed using a proprietary process called Essentia ID to develop mattresses specifically for the individual purchasing the bed. They frequently work with athletes and teams to offer custom recuperation for athletes during sleep.

Granted, not everyone can afford a custom mattress (ProCor beds range in price from $5,000 to almost $10,000, depending on size), but even a high-quality pillow can help. Consider the Essentia Wholebody Pillow with natural memory foam if you need a nightly whole-body hug or a Performance Pillow from Bedgear. Bedgear’s pillows are specifically designed for body types and sleeping styles, and feature high-tech components to increase airflow in and around the pillow to help regulate body temperature and wick away moisture to improve nightly sleep.


4. Apply Lavender Essential Oil

You may have heard that lavender promotes feelings of calm that support sleep, and Dr. Rosenberg confirms this finding, “Lavender oils have actually been studied in an ICU setting and in nursing homes and have proven to be effective in increasing sleep.” All it takes is a few drops of essential oil to make a difference. You can apply it to your wrists or temples, or use a diffuser to make your entire bedroom smell like the flower.


5. Consider Supplements With Caution

There are, of course, lots of supplements on the market that claim to support sleep, but Rosenberg warms to use them with caution. “Be cautious with supplements, as few good studies have been done. However, a recent study in the UK did demonstrate increased sleep in children who were given omega-3 fish oil. Also, melatonin has been found to help induce sleep in older patients and patients on beta-blocker drugs, which tend to inhibit the natural production of the hormone,” he says.

If you decide to turn to supplements to enhance your sleep, research them thoroughly and make sure there have been third-party studies done to support the supplement’s claims.