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Sleep Vs. Exercise: Tips for Boosting Your Energy

Hayley Dawes
11 February 2023

Should you work out or take a nap if you’re feeling sluggish and tired? If you’re feeling sluggish after lunch, you might be tempted to head back to bed for a powernap. However, a spot of exercise could boost your energy quicker.

In a bid to combat this tiredness, it can become second nature to make yet another cup of coffee or reach for a sugary snack. But these solutions, at best, act as sticking plasters. At worst, they can exacerbate fatigue by keeping you up at night – leaving you feeling tired again the next afternoon.

It’s natural for our circadian rhythm (the 24-hour process that regulates your sleep-wake cycle) to dip after lunch, and that’s what leads to low energy. But there are also other reasons why you might feel the need to lie down and close your eyes, like broken sleep, or eating dinner late at night.

Regardless of the reason, there are two common ways to gain (and sustain) more energy in the short- and long-term: through quality sleep and physical activity. For the purpose of recharging your internal battery, when it comes to determining whether to sleep or exercise for more energy, it’s less a question of either/or and more a matter of both. But sleep should be your first priority.

When to choose sleep or sweat

If you got enough sleep last night: Sweat

If you got 7-8 hours of sleep the night before, you’re good to hit the gym.

If you’ve been getting too little shut eye: Sleep

If you’ve been sleeping less than 6 hours most nights this week, it’s time to rethink your schedule. Try to go to bed 15 minutes earlier to get a bit more sleep.

If you were up all night: Sleep

Didn’t sleep a wink? Skip the morning exercise routine. Not only do you need the sleep, but your coordination will be affected, potentially making exercise more dangerous. Even if you’re working out at the same intensity as you usually do, sleep deprivation can mess with your mental performance. Moderation is key when working out on no sleep or when tired. Exercising too hard can make you more tired and increase your risk of injury because fatigue can hamper concentration and form.

If you’ve been putting off workouts all week: Sweat

If you’ve only worked out once during the week, hit the gym. Exercise can lower your risk of heart attacks and strokes.

If you’ve been hitting the gym on the regular: Sleep

If you’ve been consistently killing it at the gym that week, skip your workout. Everyone deserves a day off and your body needs sleep to repair after heavy workouts. Rest days allow for protein synthesis, which is crucial for building muscle. 

If your body is tired: Sleep

If you’re sore, sleep in and take a day off. Overtraining can cause a decrease in sleep quality and duration.

Why is sleep more important than exercise for more energy?

The body doesn’t function without sleep. So, if you aren’t getting the recommended hours of shut eye for whatever phase of life you’re in, no amount of exercise is going to compensate for it. The benefits of exercise are significantly limited if your body isn’t rested enough to recover from the exercise. If you’re positive that your sleep is on point, but you’re still feeling tired throughout the day, then exercise is your next best bet for feeling less fatigued.

Considering multiple studies point to the direct relationship between sleep and exercise, there’s no denying that you should strive for adequate amounts of both. If that’s impossible, try to only sacrifice your sleep two to three days during the week in order to hit the early morning class. Get some extra sleep the other days and on the weekends.

Both sleep and exercise are main behaviours that contribute to physical and mental health. Clocking at least seven hours of sleep can actually help you work out longer and harder the next day. The exercise/sleep equation goes both ways – regular exercise can improve sleep quality, so you feel less tired during the day.

Exercise can boost your energy, mood, and concentration

Improves sleep

There’s no right or wrong way to tackle tiredness – and naps certainly don’t work for everyone. But there’s plenty of science to suggest that movement can help us to feel more invigorated. Taking a walk and getting outside is great for getting light during the day, which is an often-over-looked part of sleep and circadian health. It will also help with blood flow in your body and ‘wake up’ your muscles and brain.

Increased endorphin levels

The benefits of exercising for both body and mind are undeniable. The endorphins released gives us the energy we need throughout the day and help us to sleep better at night. Finding the motivation to exercise after work or when you’re tired can be really hard, especially during the winter months when it’s cold and dark at 4pm.

Helps heart health

Exercise boots cardiovascular health, which allows you to have greater endurance throughout the day. For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week, such as brisk walking, water aerobics, and tennis.

Sharpens focus

Mentally, we feel more energised and ready to tackle the world after a good workout because endorphins have boosted our physical energy level.

Boosts Mood

When you’re more energised, that’s a mood lifter. But there are a few other mechanisms whereby moving your body with exercise can lead to psychological and mental health benefits, too. Exercise often improves alertness and cognitive function over the long term, which can improve one’s mood.

Breaking a sweat also helps decrease feelings of stress and anxiety, which shifts mood in a more positive direction. Exercise causes the release of dopamine and serotonin, both neurotransmitters that play a role in maintaining mood. It also slows the release of cortisol, the hormone that flows when we’re under chronic stress. These hormonal changes are good for our brain cells, promoting improved cognitive function and boosted mood. 

How to nap properly 

There are times when your body may really need to rest and recuperate, especially if you’re struggling with ongoing sleep deprivation or illness. This is when a daytime nap, even just for 20 minutes, could really help.

Sleeping during the day can help you boost your energy levels and reduce your sleep debt without having to go to bed early. However, naps that are too long can lead to sleep inertia. In contrast, short power naps of 10-20 minutes can help you feel energised when you wake up.

Napping and exercising both have clear benefits for our mental and physical wellbeing. And being able to do either in the afternoon is a massive luxury that many of us just don’t have.