Can Exercise Make Up for Sleep Deprivation?

Modern life is busy. Most people are in go-mode from the time they wake up until just a few hours before they go to bed. Work and school, friends and family, personal hobbies and goals,… the days are already simply too short to squeeze it all in. Then you need to make time for two of the most important things that keep you healthy: exercise and sleep. Experts recommend that you sleep for 7-9 hours every night. Too often, we cut into that sleep time to make it all work, with many opting to only get 4-6 hours of sleep each night. Can sticking to your exercise routine make up for all the sleep deprivation?

Written by Lucas Collins
Edited by Pavlína Marek

The Relationship between Exercise and Sleep

There are many known benefits to regular physical activity, improved sleep being one of them. People fall asleep faster and stay asleep through the night when they exercise regularly. The sleep itself is more restorative to both the mind and body.

On top of that, exercise can increase energy levels throughout the day, helping you fend off that ‘daytime grogginess’ that can set in, especially during the afternoon and early evening.

Besides these benefits, sleep is overall crucial for our bodies and minds to function properly. Long-term sleep deprivation can cause severe health problems.

There are indirect positive influences that exercise has on your sleep as well. By exercising regularly and maintaining a lower body weight, you will sleep more comfortably, avoiding poor sleep. You can also potentially keep things like sleep apnea that keep you from falling into a deep sleep in check.

Exercise and Sleep Deprivation

Everything so far shows that exercise can greatly benefit the quality of your sleep. But is it enough to make up for sleep deprivation?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to still be no, for the most part. A study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology determined that intense cardiovascular exercise can counteract some cardiovascular issues that arise when you start falling behind on sleep. It was noted, however, that this balancing act only works up to a point.

According to the researchers, certain levels of sleep deprivation cannot be consistently undone by exercise. The cardiovascular benefits leave certain aspects of sleep deprivation, such as low energy and mental activity, also mostly unchanged.

It should be noted as well that the exercise required for these potential benefits is vigorous. At least 150 minutes a week of intense activity will help to offset the sleep you would be missing, but light activity below those accumulated 150 minutes won’t do much.

Please note that there are levels to sleep deprivation. If you slept less that 3 hours, you shouldn’t attempt any vigorous exercise. You should also avoid exercise that requires focus. Additionally, the study focused on cardiovascular health. Exercise may not counter the many other health issues that arise from poor sleep.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Now that we’ve looked a little bit into the science, how exactly does all that affect you in your daily life as you train for events like the Berkeley Half Marathon? In my opinion, sleep shouldn’t be compromised on whatsoever. I find myself much more prepared and willing to take on the day after a full night’s sleep, regardless of how much running or gym time I put in throughout the day.

However, as I discussed at the beginning, life is busy and not always accommodating to our preferred timeline. Even with my firm opinion on the importance of sleep, there are nights I can’t or don’t get the recommended amount. The science suggests that regular exercise will help offset those rare late nights.

Therefore, if you need to occasionally shorten your sleep by an hour to get in your training, it shouldn’t be an issue. However, if sleep keeps getting away from you for long enough, it will probably be more beneficial to focus on getting those 7-9 hours of sleep until your schedule becomes less time-consuming.

Prioritize Balance

It might feel like every day you sleep in and don’t train is a day of lost progress. However, when you find a good balance between sleep-focused days and exercise-focused ones, you will find a sweet spot that allows you to progress towards your goals while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is to try and achieve both consistently. It is amazing how good you can feel when you get extra sleep every night. When you add exercise, you get on a very good path towards achieving your health and fitness life goals.

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