Which Should I Choose: Sleep vs. Workout

We all know the research… working out is important for your health and so is getting enough sleep. For most of us, fitting in both leaves us trying to determine which one we need more of because doing both just seems impossible some days.

Picture This…

You tried waking up early because it’s the best way to ensure you get your workout in (before the day gets away from you or you can think of an excuse). Then, you started trying to get to bed earlier so you’d still be getting enough sleep for your new wake up time. But then you started running out of time at night to do… well, anything! By the time you pick up the kiddos, make dinner, and get everyone situated, you literally have 15 minutes to yourself before you know your head should hit the pillow to get the minimum amount of sleep to be considered a functioning human being. So, which one needs to go… the workout or the sleep?

Working Out vs. Sleeping

The answer, unfortunately, isn’t that simple. Working out and sleep are both crucial to your health.

Working out and being active helps you*:

Oh yes, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface about what’s happening to you physiologically (weight loss, stronger heart, muscles, reduction of low back pain, and more). [according to US News & World Report, March 7, 2012]

Sleep helps*:

  • Improve memory
  • Improve longevity
  • Curb inflammation
  • Spur creativity
  • Improve physical performance
  • Enhances learning
  • Helps with focus and attention
  • Helps weight loss or maintenance
  • Lower stress
  • Helps avoid accidents
  • Helps avoid depression

Ratio of Sleep Needed

According to research, sleep has a direct impact on working out. Stages 3 and 4 of sleep are the ones most important to exercise recovery. Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is just starting to be released during Stage 3 and this continues into Stage 4 (deep sleep). Stage 4 is the time when your physical and mental energy are restored. Not getting into Stage 3 and 4 or not often enough, and your workouts could be compromised due to lack of recovery.  There’s also been research to show people workout at a lower intensity and for shorter periods of time when they get a poor night’s sleep.

You’re probably wondering now, just how little sleep can I get and still be OK? This is another challenging question because everyone is different. Generally speaking, most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night (National Sleep Foundation 2013). Bottom line, if you are cutting sleep short just a few nights a week to get up early and work out, you may be able to swing it because you can (theoretically) make up for it other nights. But, if you try to keep this up every day, your lack of sleep will catch up with you and affect more than just your athletic performance.

When NOT to Work Out

Let’s not forget, a lack of sleep has an impact on your physical performance and many caution you should not workout when you’re tired. You run the risk of poor performance, increased risk of injury, a negative impact on your immune system, and interference with tissue repair. Plus, the way exercise feels when you’re tired is never the same as when you are fully rested which might lead to negative feelings about exercise in general.

Of course, working out has been touted as beneficial to increasing sleep quality. A recent study found a positive effect (sleep improved after 16 weeks of exercise, but not immediately) for sedentary women in their 60s with insomnia. Other studies showed insomniacs responding favorably to moderate exercise; it decreased their level of anxiety and they were able to get better sleep at night. Keep in mind, however, experts are still undecided about exercising at night and how it may affect your sleep. Morning and afternoon seem to be in the clear, but avoid working out a few hours before hitting the hay!

So, Which Is It Then?

A ton of data exists to support both sides of this debate… so, what’s the answer? Should I sleep more and workout less, or workout more and sleep less?

Exercise and sleep are equally important for your health. One shouldn’t be sacrificed for the other. If you simply can’t get enough sleep to hit the gym in the morning, you’ll need to find ways to sneak activity in during the day and hold out for longer workouts when you can make it happen after work or on the weekends. Perhaps you could find 15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes at lunch and 15 minutes after work on the time crunched days? No one said you had to get it all done in one session!

And, if that’s impossible, try to only sacrifice your sleep 2-3 days during the week in order to hit the early morning cycling class, get some extra z’s the other days and, on the weekends, and workout when you can. Voila… best of both worlds!

Which is more important to you?


*according to Huffington Post, 12/17/2012

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Shannon Fable, 2013 IDEA and 2006 ACE Instructor of the Year, is the VP of Fitness Programming for the FIT4MOM® franchise. For more than two decades, she has helped impressive brands such as Anytime Fitness, Schwinn®, Power Systems, ACE, Silver Sneakers, and BOSU® as a fitness business and programming consultant. An experienced educator, freelance writer, and certified Book Yourself Solid® Business Coach, she helps fitness entrepreneurs navigate the industry and make more money. Fable serves as Vice Chair of the ACE Board of Directors and is the founder and co-owner of GroupEx PRO®, a cloud-based group fitness management tool.