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What Happens If I Put My Insomnia to Use By Working Out in the Middle of the Night?

It has to beat tossing and turning for two hours, right?

In these modern times, it’s said that someone like myself, who struggles to sleep for eight consecutive hours, is suffering from insomnia. I, however, just like to think of myself as old fashioned. After all, anthropologists have found that people in the mid-19th century would pass out for a few hours at dusk, only to wake up around midnight to hang out, read or even have sex before going back to sleep til dawn.

But while all of those activities have their merits — cheers especially to so much 19th-century banging — I wanted to try something else to pass the time during my sleepless nights: exercise.  

To me, this made perfect sense, since sleep and working out have always been linked. Namely: Consistent exercise is associated with an improved ability to fall and stay asleep, and in order to get the best results from your workouts, you have to get adequate rest — about seven to nine hours a night. To the experts, though, I couldn’t have been more off-base. According to James Jackson, a personal trainer who’s worked with a number of clients with unusual exercise schedules, working out in the middle of the night “can disturb your circadian rhythm and make it harder to sleep.” “If you wake up after four hours and then hit the gym before going back to bed, you’re priming your body to be alert and awake when it should be resting,” he explains.

Moreover, he adds, exercising in the middle of the night decreases “your body’s glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, so you won’t be making the best use of the food that you ingest during your pre- and post-workout meals.” 

Studies echo Jackson’s sentiments and recommend completing a workout at least an hour before bedtime, but typically closer to three hours beforehand. 

That said, Jackson doesn’t have my insomnia, and with sleep (similar to exercise), everyone has to figure out what works for their individual bodies. For some people that means adopting a 19th-century biphasic sleep schedule or taking multiple naps throughout the day. For me, that meant trying to exhaust myself back to sleep by working out whenever my insomnia struck. 

The first night of my experiment began at 3:30 a.m. — the first time I was jolted from my slumber. Once properly awake, I did a 30-minute HIIT workout along with a 12-minute bedtime Yoga with Adriene video to wind down. I still wasn’t tired, however, so I took my dog for a half-hour sunrise walk. When we returned, I should have immediately tried going back to sleep, but all I wanted to do was eat scrambled eggs and take a long shower. By the time I got done, more than two hours had passed since my first sleep session and I continued to be wide awake. Around 6:30 a.m., I officially gave up, made coffee and started my very sleep-deprived day.

To figure out what I might have done wrong — beyond, you know, everything Jackson had already told me — I consulted with orthopedic surgeon and clinical exercise physiologist Jerome Enad. In particular, he thought I might have been going too hard. “Multiple physiologic studies over the past decade have shown that exercise occurring directly before going to sleep does seem to modify sleep quality — but only vigorous workouts,” he explains. “Exercise at 40 to 60 percent of maximum capacity before sleep didn’t seem to adversely affect sleep.” 

Now that was advice I was willing to take. And so, on the next night, when I woke up at 3:30 a.m. again, I did just a 45-minute yoga video, drank a cup of tea and went back to bed before 5 a.m. The good news: My second round of sleep came easy, and I didn’t wake up again until 9 a.m. The bad news: Although I’d technically gotten eight hours of sleep in aggregate, it didn’t feel like it. If anything, I only felt like I had two bad nights of sleep in a row. Even worse, I had seemingly slept through all of the endorphins, dopamine and benefits from my yoga session and was more groggy than anything else. Basically, I felt like shit.

It would be unfair, though, to place all of the blame on the exercise. Like many ideas from the past, two sleep cycles isn’t one that’s aged well, Alex Dimitriu, a psychiatrist and sleep medicine doctor, tells me. “It takes our brain and body quite a while to wind down even once we’re asleep,” he says. “Having to repeat this wind down for a second, shorter phase of sleep, is too much overhead and time lost. The goal should be re-converging on a single phase of night-time sleep.”

Long story short: If you wake up in the middle of the night and feel like you have to do something physical to relax and get back to sleep, it’s better to have sex instead of jumping on the treadmill. But of course, only do it at 40 to 60 percent capacity.