Which Is More Important: Exercise Or Sleep?

Nov 3, 2016 //

It’s 6 AM and your alarm goes off. It’s time to get up for your workout, but you are so, so tired.

Should you sleep in, or get up and get to the gym?

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Surprisingly, the answer isn’t always so simple. What’s ultimately better for you? A good night’s sleep or exercise?

“I couldn’t choose between the two,” says Edward Laskowski, MD, a resident and professor of physical medicine at Mayo Clinic. “Sleep and exercise are like food and water.”

Not only are both sleep and exercise essential to great health, but they complement and influence each other.

“When you look at the research, regular physical activity is important for high-quality sleep, and high-quality sleep is important for physical performance,” says Cheri Mah, a sleep medicine researcher at Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco.

In one study out of North Western University, people who slept at least seven hours at night had better and longer workouts the next day, while fewer hours of sleep led to shorter and less productive workouts. Research has also suggested that deeper, longer sleep is restorative and helps with muscle repair after a workout.

So which do you choose? Let’s first look at the benefits of each.

What Exercise Does For You


We all know exercise is good for us. Here are just a few of the benefits of regular physical activity, including some you may not be aware of:

  • Exercise controls body weight and helps maintain a healthy metabolism.
  • Regular exercise prevents a good number of health issues, including obesity and diabetes.
  • It promotes lipoprotein production and reduction of the harmful triglycerides to advance the flow of blood around the body.
  • Exercising at appropriate times throughout the day can help to boost the quality of sleep at night.
  • Intense physical activity boosts libido and can lead to improved arousal and sexual satisfaction. Men who exercise frequently are less likely to experience problems with erectile dysfunction.
  • Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, the “feel-good” chemical, which lifts bad moods and can stave off depression.

What A Good Night’s Sleep Does For You


The benefits of sleep to the body are surprisingly similar to the effects of exercise. These are some of the most notable ones.

  • It keeps you generally healthy. A number of studies have established a link between a lack of sleep and some serious health issues like heart attacks, obesity and diabetes.
  • Sleep, too, improves your sex life. A lack of sleep in men has been proven to be responsible for lower testosterone levels. A poor production of testosterone is often responsible for sexual ailment like erectile dysfunction.
  • Just like exercise, proper sleeping habits also trigger the chemical production and release of endorphins that improve mood.
  • Sleep helps you perform well at work. A number of studies have shown that sleep deprived people are worse at solving simple math and logic problems than those who are well rested.

Sleep Vs. Exercise

So we know sleep and exercise are both essential for optimal health. However, Mah concedes that sleep is “foundational” — and yet, most of us don’t get enough of it. “Lots of individuals think they can operate on less [than seven hours], but when you test them, you find they’re not performing at their best,” Mah says. “They get used to feeling tired, and they think that’s the norm.”

Regularity is essential for sound, restorative sleep, and for a great workout. If you mess with your sleep schedule too much, you may struggle, not only through your workouts, but also with getting a good night’s rest.

So what should you prioritize: Sleep or exercise? You probably already know the answer. Sleep and exercise shouldn’t be an either/or scenario. Your best bet is to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day, whether or not you’re getting up for a workout. This will help train your body to not only sleep soundly at night, but to also be OK with waking up at a certain time for workouts, if that’s the only time you can fit them in.

Bottom line? Making time for both sleep and exercise isn’t about getting yourself out of bed in the morning when you’ve had a fitful night’s rest; it’s about cutting out other activities that aren’t as important, and getting in exercise during these times instead.

“Almost everyone could forgo 30 minutes a day of internet or TV time,” Mah says.

Remember: Exercise triggers deep and restful sleep. Exercise and sleep are inextricably intertwined in their functions.

And don’t forget the third component to the triangle of health: Nutrition.