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If You Only Have Time to Either Exercise or Sleep, Which One Should It Be?

Sleeping at the gym doesn’t count

You’re busy. I’m busy. All of us are painfully, gruelingly busy. Such is life in the ever-draining gig economy. And all that busyness means that other stuff falls by the wayside — stuff you used to consider important, like sleeping, or making sure your body isn’t falling apart like a dilapidated garden shed. But since both exercise and sleep are required for physical and mental health, which one should you make sure to do “right” when your schedule only, really, has time for one or the other?

Now, first things first: By “right,” we mean society’s unanimously agreed upon (but completely erroneous) eight hours of sleep, and for exercise, the American Heart Association’s recommended 150 weekly minutes (at least) of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of intense exercise. This hypothetical question, of course, assumes everything else is equal, especially being a healthy eater. But, assuming you have time for just proper sleep or proper exercise, which one should it be?

According to personal trainer and nutritionist Sean Salazar, of Anywhere Gym, it may depend on what your goals are — and how old you are. “If your goal is to be in shape, have low body fat and look good on the beach, then you would want to focus on exercise,” says Salazar.

But — surprise! — there’s a substantial downside to focusing your energy on exercise. “You’ll look great, but you may not be healthy all the time,” says Salazar, since exhausting yourself without proper rest makes you more susceptible to illness. Depending upon how intense your exercise regimen is, it’s also going to increase your risk of injury due to exhaustion and lack of focus. This may also endanger the quality of your focus at work, especially if your sleep falls below six hours.

Salazar believes that so long as you get about six hours of sleep per night, minimum, you might be tired, but you’ll probably be okay — it’s just about enough time for your muscles to repair themselves while you rest (again, this is the bare minimum amount of time they need).

Prioritizing sleep, meanwhile, is the better option if you want to focus on getting your mental acuity ship-shape. If you’re a college student preparing for tests, or have a job that demands the utmost focus — say, a surgeon or an air traffic controller — we implore you, please make sure you get enough sleep (although Salazar does recommend these people try to get in a half hour of exercise three times a week, if possible).

Assuming you have a healthy lifestyle — aside from a lack of exercise — choosing sleep over exercise may also help stave off death another few years. “If you want to live longer,” says Salazar, “then sleep would be your goal, because you’re putting less strain on your body.” But he also points out that if you forego exercise, those last few extra years may be really tough on you. “Your organs will work well and you’ll be healthy, but you may not be able to walk well. Quality of life will be much better if you move.”

At the end of the day, if you truly don’t have time to do both, you have to choose which sacrifice to make. “You really need all pieces of the puzzle,” Salazar stresses — that is, healthy diet, exercise and sleep. “Once you take one out, you’re going to see some deficit somewhere.”

But if you’re a relatively healthy adult in a line of work where you can get away with being a little groggy (and taking a few sick days), it sounds like getting your exercise in is the way to go.