Sleep Vs. Exercise: Which is More Important?

by Charlotte on November 3, 2009 · 28 comments


Sleep is great. Not only does it feel awesome but it helps you burn fat better, strengthens your immune system, makes you smarter, lessens depression and helps avoid unfortunate decision making. (I may or may not have eaten about 20 mini candy bars pilfered from my childrens’ Halloween stashes after a recent sleepless night, ahem). Exercise is also fantastic. It ups your metabolism, gives you greater energy, helps your mood, and ameliorates the stress incurred from any unfortunate decisions you have recently made. (The Almond Joys might have been really really good. Not that I’m admitting anything – that’s between me and the calorie counter on the treadmill.) A lack of either sleep or exercise brings down a host of evils upon your head that I won’t detail as we all know it is magazines’ jobs to scare us silly but suffice it to say it all comes back to You Could Die. Consequently, one of the questions you hear the most bandied about in fitness circles – and one I think is answered the worst – is about how to balance sleeping and exercise in a time-crunched world.

Generally the person asking the question says something along the lines of, “I have one hour in the morning during which I can either sleep or workout. I can’t do both. Which is a better health investment for my time?”

The advice-giver invariably answers, “You have to do both.”

Over the sound of foreheads smacking desks, the asker mutters, “I just told you I can’t do both.”

Advice giver: “You must make time for both.”

Asker: “Ideally, yes. But my life is not ideal, there are only 24 hours in the day and I have to sacrifice something. My wife ruled out offering up one of our children, my job is kind of important to life and so I’ve narrowed it down to either sleep or exercise.”

Advice giver: “Exactly. Do both.”

Not that I’m fond of trotting out my vast knowledge of Disney movies but the Sea Witch makes a good point to little perky-breasted (talk about a water bra!) Ariel when she croons, “Life’s full of tough choices in it.” Of course that was right before she pulled a Chase Bank credit card (yeah, you suck Chase!) maneuver and stole Ariel’s twee voice after making her sign an incomprehensible contract but I digress. The point is that there are times when you will have to choose between exercise and sleep. And it isn’t always as simple as advice columnists make it out to be.

For myself, I think you all know which one I choose. Confession time: when my current youngest (i.e. the one not still tenaciously occupying my womb) was in the hospital a couple of years ago with an unknown infection, I stayed by his side 24/7. He was so scared and so sick that the only way he would sleep was if I held him upright in the rocking chair. I didn’t sleep for two days straight (also a measure of how scared I was). When my husband, who had been at home with our older two, came to spell me for a few hours so I could get some sleep and shower, you know what I did? I went straight to the gym and did kickboxing for an hour. I say this not as a point of pride – I am the girl who was diagnosed with compulsive exercise – but rather as a point of reference. Exercise: it’s how I deal.

For many others however, it’s the opposite situation. It’s much easier to curl up in bed, hit snooze and ditch the morning jog. Sleep is how they deal.

The answer of course is the one thing I’m really not good at: balance. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you that you must do both at the same time – although N8′s comic above is wicked funny – but you do need to find that place of balance for yourself, weighing the pros and cons of each activity. For me that means forcing myself to not exercise sometimes. As I’m rapidly approaching that fabled sleeplessness that is life with an infant, I need to remind myself that lack of sleep makes me grouchy, depressed, and have mad sugar cravings. In short – cortisol city. It may be in my best interest to skip the gym in favor of a nap. For others that may mean forcing yourself out of bed three mornings a week to get in 30-60 minutes of exercise, even though you may not have had quite enough sleep.

In the end I think it is that concept of “enough” that we are all trying so hard to define. Most of us don’t get enough of sleep or of exercise. Because life isn’t perfectly calibrated. But that doesn’t mean it’s a loss! Just do the best you can do to fit both into your life over time and understand that on a daily basis you’ll be probably be lacking in one area or the other. Here are some of my tips on how to do that:

- Make your workouts shorter. Crossfit, The Monkey Bar Gym and other interval or circuit style workouts offer a huge metabolic reward for a very short investment of time. You absolutely can get a quality workout in 30 minutes or less. You just have to work very very hard during those 30 minutes.

- Cut out TV. I know, I know, Glee is hysterical but if you are so time-crunched that you are forced to choose between sleep and exercise and TV I hope you realize which one of those three should go first. Trust me, its easier to do than you think it is!

- Take a nap. If it’s one thing I learned from my time in Spain it is that every country should have a mandatory midday siesta. Remarkably restorative.

- Break up your workout into chunks. Yeah you probably won’t change into workout clothes every time (although mad props if you rip off your suit and tie in a phone booth to reveal your Under Armor) but you can still work in lots of incidental exercise into your day.

- This may be my most important suggestion: Stop worrying about what you’re not doing and focus on the benefits of what you are doing. Being a chronic worrier myself, I know how tempting it is to bemoan all that you are lacking but worrying only drives up those stress hormones. Every little bit – whether sleep or exercise – helps! So give yourself kudos for what you are getting right.

Certainly you all can do better than my wishy-washy answer though! Which do you think is the better investment: sleep or exercise? What tips do you have for finding that balance? Also, do they even have phone booths anymore? No wonder Superman died.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Meg November 3, 2009 at 4:37 am

Hi Charlotte! Thanks for this. Being at the end of my first tri and still sick, I find it impossible to exercise. I have not taken a break like this since I broke my leg during soccer in high school! I am choosing sleep these days. You touch on a great point. When I get back to exercising, I am going for the short intense workouts. After taking off several weeks and losing weight (hmmmm) perhaps I was way overdoing it. Maybe I should thank this peanut that I am so sick.

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Regular Cinderella November 3, 2009 at 4:43 am

Given the choice of that extra hour of sleep in the morning or getting up early to exercise, I will choose sleep every time.

However, give me that same hour late at night…where I can go to bed early or stay up and exercise…I will choose to exercise.

I agree that balance is an absolute must to maintain (or obtain) a healthy lifestyle. The number two thing people say to me–right after, "I wish I had your will power!" (HA!) is "I wish I had the time to work out like you do."
Most people have the time, they just can't (or won't) find it. My elightenment actually came from Biggest Loser last season. One of the contestants told the camera, "I thought I didn't have time to work out, but I had 4 or 5 hours a night to watch TV." A-HA! It was an epiphany for me. While I haven't been able to give it up completely–though I've given it some serious thought–I have cut way back on my (and my family's) viewing time.

Thanks for the reminder that sleep is really just as important as exercise…it's been one of my goals that keeps getting overlooked. :-)

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M November 3, 2009 at 7:17 am

I'm wondering whether my doppleganger law-school GFE poster McKenzie will follow my post immediately again…perhaps this will become a game of sorts??

Now, on point to the post topic– it's totally a really hard balance. As of late, sleep has been winning, but as I get more stressed, the gym becomes a more salient factor in my life.

Essentially, my choice is made solely on the amount of sleep I've had the prior night- if it's been less than 5, I nap during gym time. I guess it also depends on what I have to do the next day (for example, if I have a trial, sleep wins, but if I have just class, gym wins).

Unlike Regular Cinderella, I will opt for gym in the morning and sleep at night. Exercise too late means I don't sleep at all.

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Deb (Smoothie Girl Eats Too) November 3, 2009 at 8:02 am

I think that it depends on where I am in life…when I'm extremely stressed and worried, I use exercise to cope. It's my escape and my "me" time. I totally overexercised right around the time that my mom passed away and my Dad was in the hospital. Then again around her memorial a few months later. Like crazy tons of exercise- waking up the poor hotel front desk person at 3am to let me into the gym… Hey I was jet-lagged (in Sweden) and couldn't sleep anyway so I may as well bang out a workout

When I've been training a lot but without a ton of stress and I find I'm short on sleep, I choose the sleep.

Thanks for this post!

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Miz November 3, 2009 at 10:59 am

LOVE this as well.
for me it is the ever elusive life balance but (again for me) it's rarely a choice between sleep and exercise more sleep and….letting my child scream :) or sleep and getting work done.

I listen to my body.
If Im truly TIRED I tend to get up and work and skip the workout entirely!
if Im just feeling crabby (rimshot?) and not really tired I workout.
and Im the opposite of regular cinderella: I will skip an evening working EVERY TIME.

I only need to hear the word TIRED much less feel it to seize the excuse.

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Shellie November 3, 2009 at 12:13 pm

I think most people box in choices like this at one time or another and it requires a shift in perspective. Everyone gets 24 hours. Jobs usually take about 9-10. Sleep takes 8. Exercise takes 1 or 2. Add another hour to eat. That leaves about 4 hours. It's not between sleeping and exercising, it's about being more efficient, combining activities or cutting out something in that other 4 hours.

We try and cram a whole lot into that 4 hours and it ends up taking 6 or 8 or 10. Then we say we have no choice but to sacrifice sleep or excercise for the sake of the other, but that's really not true.

A lot of people have families and that takes time, too. But we can eat or exercise and be with family members simultaneously. Let's add an additional hour of family time a day. That's still 3 hours. The real question is, what's all the other stuff we are trying to cram in our day that's encroaching on what's most important?

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JavaChick November 3, 2009 at 1:40 pm

I've tried morning exercise – it doesn't work for me. So my workouts happen after work. For me, it's more like a choice between exercise and housework. Exercise wins (as evidenced by the sad state of my house).

Oh, and treadmill (or whatever) in front of TV works if you just can't stand to miss out on that episode of Glee.

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Kara November 3, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Ah, how timely for me. Almost 9 months postpartum I am still struggling with sleep deficit. Then, last night after my little plum was up only once (only once!) at 1 am, I DID NOT FALL ASLEEP UNTIL 3:30. Anyway… I'm making myself get up one morning a week, regardles of how much sleep I get and soon will be adding two. Truth is, losing that one hour of sleep to exercise just one or two days doesn't make the sleep deficit any worse and just as the experts say, I always feel better after. On other days, I try to squeeze it in later, especially weekends when dad's around to make it easier. I've also read that a 20 min. nap is more restorative than sleeping in those same 20 min. I believe it. Most of all, thanks for this: "Stop worrying about what you're not doing and focus on the benefits of what you are doing." I needed to hear that. It's going to be my mantra for the week.

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Dr. J November 3, 2009 at 1:51 pm

In my past experiences, there were four choices, sleep, exercise, eat work. Like it or not, the priority list went:
1) work!
2) eat when I could fit it in.
3) sleep when I could
4) exercise

Such was the life of a surgeon in their residency.

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Fit Mama November 3, 2009 at 1:58 pm

I will always choose sleep over exercise. However, I know that I need exercise to be able to sleep well, and normally only have time for said exercise from 5-6 AM before I have to get ready for work and get the tot up and going. During this pregnancy, that routine has pretty much gone out the window and I've been listening to my body. I will set my alarm for 5, but if I don't sleep well, I sleep until 6. I try to get a workout in after the tot hits the hay at 8, which means I've cut out most of my TV, but some nights I'm just too tired for it and end up curled in bed with a book.

Maybe if I planned better, I would be able to better manage my time. I did go through about a year when I could consistently get the early morning workout in and still feel great all day. But with so many variables during pregnancy, Terrible Twos, flu season, etc, I just play it by ear so I don't end up hurting myself more than helping myself, or disappointing myself by not following through.

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Joshua November 3, 2009 at 2:16 pm

I'm with Dr. J on priority list. If only work didn't take up so much time, I'd have plenty of time to exercise. However, since I only average about 4 hours of sleep per night, you'd think I have plenty of time to exercise, except that it's really hard to exercise in the house when everyone else is asleep and a 4-month-old is curled up on the ottoman because that's the only place he sleeps decently; which is nice in and of itself as he'll sleep for 4 hour stretches if he's lying there; which also means that you can't really do anything like leave the room to do dishes or even exercise while in the same room; which also means the only exercise you get is trying to contract and hold muscle groups, releasing, and trying again.

Side note, as it relates to exercise, there was a story at the end of last week about a woman who is a single mother whose infant slept wonderfully. She puts the baby to sleep in its (they didn't say if it was a boy or girl) crib, calls her cell phone from the home phone, leaves the home phone (portable) in the baby's crib as a monitor, and proceeds to leave the house to run errands, workout, whatever. I couldn't believe it. They had her on the radio with the voice disguiser on. Smart move considering DFACS might have something to say about it.

-Joshua

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Erika November 3, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Great post. I hate that do both answer like you can just magically make all other respinsibilities disappear.

The siesta culture sounds great and definitely goes along with the natural rythyms of the body. But since we live in the US where we all must be working or doing something productive otherwise be viewed as lazy, I don't see that happening.

As for balance, I started a little yoga challenge for myself using Wii Personal Fitness Trainer. I am finding my flexibility and overall range of motion sucks lately. And my 6 year old daughter loves yoga so we do it together. I don't feel bad about not spending time with her and I get some activity in. So far so good, hopefully we can continue our nightly yoga sessions.

BTW, how are you feeling? Ugh, you must be SOO ready!

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bjbella5 November 3, 2009 at 3:07 pm

I am always trying to get more of both! Right now I need to get to the exercise part.

Hope you are doing well!

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azusmom November 3, 2009 at 5:15 pm

(I also wondered about the phone booths.)
Coming off of a month of nearly zero sleep coupled with a screaming 6 year-old at all hours of the night, i would probably say that sleep is more important. But then I think again, remembering that it was the swimming, hot yoga, and pilates that has helped me get through this past month.
I think you just gotta listen to your body and act accordingly. REALLY listen, and try to turn off the brain for a few minutes. 'Cause your brain might be saying "Hey, we really need to go run 30 miles" but your body is whispering "Um, hello, we got 3 hours of sleep. Let's just go take a nice nap."
Or vice-versa.
Sometimes, like you said, we need to get past all the "Should" and do what is TRULY in our own best interest.

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Quix November 3, 2009 at 6:00 pm

I have to get both. I used to say "sleep is for the weak", but the combination of running and not doing caffeine anymore puts me out like a light around midnight. Very rarely I'll have a restless night, but as long as I'm getting regular exercise, my eyes just shut and I drift off.

The rare days I do have issues sleeping, I'll sleep in instead of working out and go after work (or just take that day off instead of another later in the week). However, if I've done it to myself, like staying out too late on a weeknight or being hungover in the morning, I'm more inclined to make myself tough it out as punishment. :)

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Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan November 3, 2009 at 6:06 pm

About six weeks ago, I committed to getting 8-9 hours of sleep per night… I was averaging about 6 or 7 before that. My fat loss was stalled. I was moody. And, paradoxically, I had trouble sleeping through the night.

So now that I'm on the sleep bandwagon, I feel *slightly* more committed to sleep than I do to a workout when things get stressful. But I also really hunker down on my nutrition when that happens, and I try to do SOMETHING that involves moving my body.

Melissa Urban wrote a really great blog post recently about how sleep and training can help weather "Life Stuff." http://www.urbangetsdiesel.com/2009/10/derailed.html

Thanks for this post, Charlotte! It's a nice addition to my "posts to read when I'm feeling overwhelmed and don't know what to do" list.

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KefirGirl November 3, 2009 at 6:35 pm

nothing to add – just a great, well-rounded post that is really, really relatable. thx!

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NeverSayDiet November 3, 2009 at 6:38 pm

As a woman who has long struggled with sleep issues, if given the choice of sleep or exercise, I'll choose working out almost every time. Unless I'm dead tired and must have a nap (usually this would be on a weekend when my husband is home, otherwise I rarely ever nap. too hyper!) I'd rather hit the gym where I know I'm guaranteed to get something accomplished. Plus I feel great and can usually sleep better that night.

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Laura November 3, 2009 at 7:35 pm

Thanks for the advice. I certainly seem to find that I don't have enough time to get enough sleep everyday and exercise. I think I will try those shorter bursts of exercise which you advised first thing in the morning.

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Marste November 3, 2009 at 10:00 pm

So your recommendation is . . . both?

KIDDING. I'm kidding. Sort of. ;)

I can't work out effectively if I don't get enough sleep. Unfortunately that often means I'm in bed by nine or so. Yeah. I'm a PARTY. ANIMAL.

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Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan November 3, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Hey, Marste… I've been going to bed at 9:00 p.m., too. Makes me feel like I'm 8 years old. Can't feed me sugar. Have to give me a snack every 3 hours. Put me to bed at 9:00.

No lie, I feel asleep at 8:40 last night. But I also started my day with heavy back squats, so…

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Jody - Fit at almost 52 November 3, 2009 at 10:18 pm

I am like you Charlotte & I hate to give up my workouts! I tend to do them & make up for sleep another time. BUT if I am dead tired, I "MAY" listen to the sleep talk but it is rare & probably not enough.

Workouts have gottne me thru the toughest of times so I hate to miss them.

If mst be, I just shorten the workut & up the intensity OR I move the workout to a day I normally do not work out when I am more rested.

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Amy November 3, 2009 at 11:21 pm

So I've been trying like crazy to walk this baby down/out at the Y for the last few weeks while my body yells at me to go to sleep. Since nothing seems to be moving this baby, I've decided to listen to my body and got a morning nap today before the hubs left for work (2nd shift). I've read that in other mammals too much stress and activity will keep them from going into labor— so sleep it is.

I did go to the Y this afternoon, but more to avail myself of sanity saving childwatch services than anything else, doing less than 1/2 mile on the track in 1.5 hours.

But I do wonder how I'll balance sleep and exercise after/IF this
little guy gets born.

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T November 3, 2009 at 11:24 pm

lately … i've been choosing sleep. which is all well and good until i start getting doughy. sooo … i need to start choosing exercise again.

and phonebooths still exist, at least in the upper peninsula of michigan. i saw them there a few years ago.

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Heather McD (Heather Eats Almond Butter) November 4, 2009 at 3:02 am

I used to choose exercise. I remember, one night I worked until 10:30 (at a restaurant – working 2 jobs) and was up at 4 AM to fit in a run before opening the office at 6 AM. I fell hard and busted up my hands. Not good for a massage therapist. Kept going, going, going, and fell again during another early morning run 2 weeks later. No massage work for 6 weeks, and I still have nasty scars. I think someone was trying to tell me something. I listened and slowed down. Sleep a lot more and exercise a little less. Much better now.

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Anonymous November 4, 2009 at 6:05 pm

I just want to add, to the sleep vs exercise vs tv part – work out WHILE watching tv. I work about half the evenings a week, but when I'm not I often work out while watching the shows I like. You can do a lot of aerobics-style stuff just in your home, with an exercise ball and light weights. If you have a treadmill or something, put it in front of the tv. Watch them at the gym or even run in place, but you can do a lot while watching your shows if you don't want to miss them.

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Darcy Franklin November 4, 2009 at 9:10 pm

I'm with Melissa. I go to bed around 8:30, 9 at the latest with lights out shortly after. I made this commitment to avoid getting sick. So far so good.

I will choose sleep every time unless I am meeting a friend. Somebody has to be depending on me in order to get me out of bed. Fortunately, if I don't get it in during the a.m., I get it in later.

Prioritize. My new year's resolution this year was to get rid of things in my life that I have control over that don't improve my life. Anything that is a hassle that you have a choice about, I made it disappear. My life have vastly improved.

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Chris Cobbs July 21, 2011 at 12:50 pm

It has been my experience in Construction that good sleep is far superior to exercise.

It has been my experience in life that good sleep is at least twenty times more effective than exercise, and excellent sleep habits are the only difference between good sleep and bad sleep.

An extra hour in the morning? Exercise. An extra hour at night? Be sure to wind down properly before hitting the sack at exactly 9:30. Exercise winds up your body, and is good to start your day with, but in comparison with sleep is simply fifth fiddle. A good diet trails in a distant 3rd in this decade-long experiment on myself, but all 3 are crucial to feeling like you can lift a Peterbilt with an 80 foot trailer attached and sprint a mile with it.

Sleep at exactly the same time every night, wake at exactly the same time every day, get no less than 8 hours of rest. The more rigid you are about this, the stronger your mind and body will be in the long term. The more out of tune/sync your body is, the harder the rigid schedule will be to implement, and the more rewarding. If your social scene can’t handle this, tough. They are killing you, literally.

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