Sleep and Exercise – Which One Is More Important?

by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN

How much sleep do you get each night? Do you burn the midnight oil and get minimal sleep? How many times a week do you exercise? Do you prioritize your workouts over sleep, even if it means getting in a late-night workout and shaving one to two hours off your sleep? This all raises the question when it comes to sleep and exercise, which is more important?

In this article, let’s take a deeper look into sleep and exercise and get a better understanding of which (if either) one is more important in the grand scheme of things so that you know where your priorities need to be.

Sleep is Incredibly Important

Let’s just get it out of the way and say that sleep is more important than exercise. Now, that’s not to downplay the importance and role that exercise plays in our overall health and fitness, but sleep definitely gets the nod here.

For the longest time, the National Sleep Foundation has been recommending that everyone get anywhere from 7.5-8.5 hours of sleep per night. Anything less, and you’re doing yourself a disservice by not allowing your body to recover from the previous day (both mentally and physically). Sleep and rest are where growth happens, and if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you’re minimizing your muscle growth potential. Sleep and exercise go hand-in-hand.

A study was conducted that found our muscles follow a circadian cycle. What this means is that if you stay up super late to fit in a workout when you should actually be sleeping, it throws off your body’s ability to recover properly, and therefore, you’re going to see fewer results from your training — further displaying that sleep and exercise are somewhat married.

But it runs deeper than just muscle recovery from intense workouts. Not getting enough sleep can negatively impact learning and memory. Skipping out on quality sleep can not only leave you tired, less productive, and moody the next day, but it can also affect your mental health.

Here’s something you should find interesting. According to studies, shortening your sleep cycle by as much as two hours had the same impact on cognitive performance as being legally drunk. That may explain why some of your co-workers act the way they do!

But what about your health? Sleep plays a role in keeping your immune system functioning optimally, and getting quality sleep each night can help keep your body protected from foreign pathogens that want to enter the body and do harm.

Don’t Forget to Exercise

From what was said above, you may think the scale seems to be tipping in favor of getting some extra Z’s at night when comparing sleep and exercise. While overall, sleep should take precedence, we can’t brush off exercise when looking at the entire picture.

Sleep and exercise may be fighting for your time and attention, but don’t forget to schedule your workouts to help improve your health and fitness.

Whether you’re an elite athlete, weekend warrior, or the typical American couch potato, research has found that all adults need to strive for at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week. For some, that number may scare you and sound like a lot. However, when you break it down, that’s only 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week. Overall, that’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things.

So, what should you do? The answer is simple… whatever you’ll be able to do consistently over time without falling off the wagon. Far too many people engage in exercise they hate. Ultimately, they fail and give up because they hated every second of what they were doing. Find something you enjoy that involves resistance or strength training as well as some cardiovascular activity.

The combination of resistance training and cardio will provide you with the best results possible. Don’t look at the two as being individual elements, look at them as being the total package when it comes to health and fitness.

Sleep and Exercise Should BOTH Be Prioritized

Can you really do one and not the other if you want to be your healthiest and fittest self? The answer is no. Sleep and exercise belong together if longevity and health are a priority of yours.

Sure, you should focus on sleep and skip exercise if necessary, but you’re missing a whole host of benefits that come along with physical activity by doing that. Sleep and exercise need to be a priority in your life.

A simple way to ensure you are on top of your sleep and exercise is by using your calendar and alarms on your phone. Put your workouts in your calendar, and don’t allow anything or anyone the ability to push that time slot away from you. That’s your time to focus on yourself and your health/fitness.

Likewise, use your alarm and set it for when you need to go to bed. When the alarm goes off, close up shop on whatever you’re doing and climb into bed.

If you stay on top of your sleep and exercise, you put yourself in the best position possible to stay healthy and fit, even as you age. Don’t brush it off, don’t make an excuse, just get it done.