It's tough to carve out enough workout time during the week—between winter's shorter days, crazy work schedules, social obligations, and now the holidays, squeezing in a sweat session can feel like a challenge. Yet, maintaining regular workout schedule not only improves your health and busts stress, it also keeps you from slacking off—when you make big gains, you're more likely to stay on track. “Seeing progress in your physique and overall health can boost your motivation to continue working out. Whether that’s seeing ab definition or being able to catch the bus without fighting for air, small but significant improvements go a long way in boosting motivation,” explains Caleb Backe, CPT and Health Expert for Maple Holistics. Essentially, positive return on investment creates a positive feedback cycle.
But what if you only have time to squeeze in P.M. exercise — is it bad to work out at night? Going to bed with an elevated core temperature from a nighttime workout may make it hard to sleep, says Backe. But, if it's your only option, fear not. “Some athletes worry that working out at night will throw off their natural sleep-wake cycle, as well as their sleep hygiene which can impact overall sleep quality. That being said, the opposite might be true,” he says.
If you’re a night owl, nighttime workouts could be best for you, as that’s when you have the most energy. Try to workout at least two hours before you hit the hay, to allow your body time to cool down. Additionally, a cool post-workout shower can help you wind down before you hit the sack, he adds. “What’s more, while you sleep your body will be making the most of that after-burn exercise effect, boosting your metabolism and enhancing your overall workout efforts,” he says. Win-win.
Here's what you can do (and what to avoid) to reap the benefits of a late-P.M. workout.
Is it Bad to Work Out at Night? Not Necessarily, But Follow These Tips
Do: Get a Full Night’s Sleep Don’t: Workout Right Before Bed
Don’t skimp on the zzz’s. If you are working out near bedtime, make sure you can still get 7-8 hours of sleep to wake up refreshed and hormonally balanced. That will not only improve your workouts but also keep your body well and immune system working. “After working out at night, it’s important to make sure to get a full night’s sleep. Working out properly is both physically and mentally exhausting, and you must give your body a chance to recoup if you want to treat it right,” says Backe. So, if you have to wake up super early, consider skipping that workout at night, going to bed earlier, and doing something small in the morning. Or just halve your workout to make it shorter so you can cool down and get to bed on time.
Related: Good Night Sleep and Your Brain
Exercise is stimulating, so by doing it an hour before bedtime, you’re likely to going to wake yourself up too much to wind down. “If you’re working out at night, make sure to not stay up later than you normally would. Exercise is, of course, healthy, but what’s not healthy is throwing off your body’s internal clock and messing up your sleep cycle,” he explains. Give yourself two to three hours before you plan to sleep.
Do: Rinse Off Don’t: Skip That Shower
No matter what time it is, it’s always good to rinse off after a workout. “Many people prefer showering, as it’s quick and effective. Yet if you find that a shower wakes you up at night, consider drawing a bath to clean yourself and soothe your muscles,” says Backe.
Don’t go to sleep all sweaty after a nighttime workout. “The hot water from a shower can help your muscles relax, while the clean feeling helps you feel calm [a signal to your body that it's time to sleep].” A cool shower can help lower your body temperature, too, he says, which will physiologically aid in priming the body for sleep.
Do: Prioritize Recovery Don’t: Skip Stretching
Stretching might seem like just another thing to do that delays bedtime, but it’s super important for recovery. Plus, it may even make you sleepy, which is a plus. “Never skip stretching, even when working out at night. When you exercise without stretching, you’re harming your muscles. So even if you have to cut the rest of your workout routine short, make sure to set aside time to stretch,” says Backe. This could be myofascial release with a foam roller, giving yourself a massage, and doing yoga poses to soothe the body.
Do: Eat Something Small Don’t: Go to Bed Hungry
Don’t forget to eat. While exercise might not make you ravenous at first, you still need some protein, complex carbs, and healthy fat to repair damaged muscles, says Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD. Without it, you undo the positive work you just did, as your muscles won’t get stronger and recover for your next workout. So, keep it small but effective—you also don’t want to eat a huge bacon double cheeseburger and fries that will lead to digestive distress while you’re trying to fall asleep, either, she explains.
Go with a protein smoothie and half a banana, a Greek yogurt with fruit, nuts, and seeds, or a slice of whole grain toast with avocado or nut butter. If you don’t want a big meal that’s more like dinner, these snacks will still offer the nutrients you need.