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Health

What's the Perfect Amount of Exercise I Can Do For Better Sleep?

Everyone is different, but here is how to get started with figuring it out.
April 28, 2021, 7:24pm
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Hi Swole Woman!! I respect what you're doing with the lifting at all, but here is the thing—I hate working out, it's the worst part of my day any time I do it, even if, as you say, it's pretty short. I'm willing to do it, but here is the thing—I just want to work out enough in order to help me sleep.

I have chronic insomnia that always has me waking up in the middle of the night, and sometimes makes it hard for me to get to sleep in the first place. To make the problem worse, as a result of sleeping badly, I feel incredibly tired all day, too tired to work out. But then sleeping time rolls around, and I can't fucking sleep!!

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I feel like I have tried everything, including medication, and even my doctor is suggesting trying to work out. I really, really don't want to, but so here is my question: What is the absolute minimum amount of working out I can do that will help me sleep? That is all I want; I don't want to be more attractive, I don't want to be stronger, I don't want to eat more; I just want to go back to sleeping through the night like I did when I was a kid and not feeling terrible all day as a result of sleeping like ass. Any help you can provide, I would super appreciate. —Up All Night, Might Sleep All Day

It’s time for me to come clean: I should not have wished on the monkey’s paw for an opportunity to find out how badly I’d sleep if I never had to leave my house or really move from my couch ever again. Instead, we’ve had a year where that was basically the luckiest and most fortunate possible outcome. My upfront findings from this experiment were that I sleep like garbage and am even in physical pain at night when I don’t work out at all. On those nights, when I’m lying wide awake at 4 a.m., my hips actively hurting, I remember when I was in high school and doing sports practice three hours a day and slept like clockwork every night from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. And I know, intellectually at least, I can be mad all I want that I can’t sleep, but it’s not actually that deep or confounding of a problem.

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I am a STRUGGLE sleeper; I fall asleep very easily but wake up in the middle of the night a lot, and too often that becomes just "waking up very, very early" (some of you may have witnessed on Instagram the 3 a.m. apple cider cake-baking incident earlier this year; the cake was great, but at what cost). The two things that help me the most with this problem are making sure I getting enough exercise, and not having more than two drinks. That doesn’t mean I never don’t work work out enough or have more than two drinks, it just means, scientifically, I know what I’m in for, because I’ve done the research and the data do not lie.

There are infinite memes out there about our general resistance to basic caretaking and life improvement tasks that go something like:

Me: Why am I depressed and in pain

My body: Go for a walk. Go to sleep before 4am. Eat one vegetable. Talk to a therapist

Me: I guess we’ll never know

We are all on board, again, at least intellectually, with the idea that exercise has lots of benefits that outweigh whatever the costs are, even if it’s not a cure-all. More specifically, we want to be just physically tired enough, and mobile enough that we’re not climbing into bed feeling like a gnarled tree cursed by a witch. So then we are left with the questions of “how do I even begin to do that,” which I answer more thoroughly in my column about motivation, and “how much,” which is trickier to answer.

We can start with the basic health guidelines for exercise, which are a little opaque but a decent jumping-off point: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of “moderate-intensity” activity per week (one example it gives is “brisk walking”) or 75 minutes of “vigorous intensity” activity per week (“jogging or running”) or any combo thereof that would add up accordingly, plus muscle-building activities “on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups.” Yes; the authorities say do strength training, but are painfully non-specific about how much or for how long. They are clear that it doesn’t count toward the 150 or 75 minutes. 

So that is actually quite a lot of exercise; two days of strength training, even for 20 minutes, plus let’s say three 25-minute jogging sessions, for a total of just under two hours a week. In 2018, only 23 percent of people were actually exercising this much, so if you’re not, you’re in the majority. You might say, hold on, I was asking for the bare minimum and this sounds like a lot. Our government can be a pretty bare-minimum kind of regulator. The “recommended daily allowance” for protein intake, for instance, sounds like it would be an overshoot, but is actually a floor, the very smallest amount required. I’m not sure that this is also true of its recommended amounts of exercise, but the guidelines also say that even more exercise would be better.

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But you are not totally out of luck in terms of apathy just yet, because there is the factor of your personal biology. 

One way that I like to think about the general synergy of activity with our well-being is to consider dogs. Dogs come in all manner of energy levels: There are the little roly-poly ones people push around in carriages more than they walk them; there are the high-energy ones that will whine and tear your house apart unless they get no fewer than two straight hours of sprinting per day on open farmland; there are lots of kinds of dogs in between. (It feels worth noting that there are no dogs, to my knowledge, where a vet would say, “don’t walk this one. Best to keep it inside and as immobile as possible.”) While people are not dogs, people and dogs are alike enough animals that I feel comfortable saying we can probably apply a similar activity-needs spectrum for people.

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There is also the question of “current fitness level.” Even the sprinting farm dog could be tired out from a few minutes of sprinting if it were somehow prevented from doing its sprinting for months or years at a time. But as it adapts with more exercise, the 15 minutes might have once worked to tucker him out won’t cut it. Probably most people don’t need tons and tons of exercise to reach a balance, but if you’ve ever gone, “I tried walking 20 minutes five times a week and it didn’t do shit for me,” or “it did shit for me but then my sleep problems came back after a couple weeks,” you might have greater exercise needs than an hour and a half of strolling per week can fulfill. 

Taking all of this together would mean that we each have individual, potentially moving targets to hit, in terms of exercise: you have a certain amount that you need, and if you’re not working out at all currently, it might take some time to find your personal threshold for what your own set of “healthy habits” is.

So how do you figure it out where you are on the dog-energy spectrum? As friend of the column Jon Gabrus of High and Mighty would say: you titrate. 

You may remember “titration” from middle-school chemistry class, but outside of chemistry class, “to titrate” generally means “continuously measure and adjust the balance of.” In chemistry practice this means, if you are trying to create a salt-water solution, you don’t start by dumping a barrel of salt on top of a glass of water. You add a little bit of salt, measure the saltiness of the water, add a little bit more, measure, and so on, until you have water that is salty in the way that works for whatever it is you needed salt water for. In other words, you try an incremental amount of something, measure the results, and repeat until you find something that works. 

In personal terms, in the same way you would not back up a salt truck to a thimble of water to make a salt solution, you don’t begin the process of integrating working out into your life by going from nothing to three hours of Peloton classes twice a day. This is for two reasons: 1), it is obviously overkill in the sense of you are in no shape to be doing that, and 2), it’s almost certainly way more than you need ultimately unless you really missed your calling as an Olympic athlete, and you will probably get tired and burned out, no matter how fun and friendly the Peloton instructor seems at first.

So start slow! Go for some walks, maybe try a couple of gentle fitness classes per week, and then keep track of how you sleep. If you don’t have some sort of tracking device for this, start a notebook or other document where you can keep track of your sleep and workouts and see how they fit together. You’re doing a little experiment on yourself. If you find something that works for you, stick with it; if it seems to stop working, consider where you’re at in terms of the recommended amount and types of exercise and see if you can stand to bump it up. You might find like two hours of walking a week really does it for you, or you might find that it does nothing, but you won’t know unless you start to keep track.

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I want to add one more note on the dimension of intensity, which the exercise guidelines sort of get at but in such a vague way I would not blame anyone for being confused and just sort of glossing over it. But basically, workout intensity can do two things: it can help keep your workouts shorter, and it will probably make you a different kind of tired than strictly less-intense exercise. For instance, if you were on an all-walking regimen but needed to walk like 10 hours a week to tire yourself out enough physically, you might convert an hour of that walking to something more intense, like lifting weights, and find that then you only need five, or three, or two total hours of working out. 

Lifting weights is meaningfully different from cardio in that it builds and maintains muscle, which we need for lots of reasons. It does not make me feel wonderful, exactly, to agree with the government on something, but lifting truly does not get a fair shake in the grand scheme of workouts: it makes them overall faster and you get more health bang for your time buck. I’m over the walking hegemony, frankly; yes it does more than anything at all, but almost anything else does more than walking.

So maybe shoot for two total hours a week of working out in the longer run, even if some of it is just walking, as long as you get two days a week of lifting. It sounds like a lot, but two hours is one percent of your whole week. If you can get by with less, great! But if you’re doing less and not sleeping great still, it might be time to play around with the intensity and time commitment.

I know you hate working out and feel like it’s undignified. The first few times can feel mortifying even if nothing specifically bad happens; it took me a very long time to get used to the idea of having to wave at people driving by in cars when I was getting into running, or having to ask someone when they would be done with a squat rack so I could use it next (a very normal-to-the-gym but alien-to-me-at-the-time interaction). But I swear, like anything new, you will get used to both the logistics and personal feelings of awkwardness, if you just give yourself space to get over that initial hurdle. And I can confirm, it’s totally worth it for a good night’s sleep.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.