When I was in the throes of serious overtraining and battling the fact that my identity was wrapped up in fitness (more accurately, how fit I was), I would work out at any cost.
This was while I was in college, mind you, so I was regularly losing sleep to homework, studying and nights out with friends. Still, no matter what, I would drag myself to the gym every morning. Working out every single day with no rest days is bad enough on its own — working out every day on no sleep is far worse.
The hustle culture that has led to severe burnout among the workforce has infiltrated the fitness community, too. No one will argue against the fact that working out is good for you. The benefits are ample and undeniable. Working out on no sleep, however, is quite worthless.
Trying to squeeze in a workout on top of other responsibilities (Work! Chores! Errands! Kids!) seems futile at times, and I’m here to tell you that it’s OK — necessary, actually — to prioritize sleep over fitness when you can’t do it all. Below, I explain why, plus what to do when you don’t have enough time for sleep and a workout.
Should you work out on no sleep?
You might feel OK if you work out on no sleep every once in a while. Continue to do so, and you will likely spend every day feeling like you got hit by a truck. Sleep is the foundation for all things, fitness included: Without sleep, your body won’t recover from the stress of physical activity and your fitness will either plateau or start spiraling downward.
Don’t succumb to fitness hustle culture just to feel accomplished. You won’t accomplish much through a sleep-deprived workout except more exhaustion and maybe some resentment toward exercise.
There’s a clear link between sleep and fitness: Research shows that inadequate sleep negatively affects athletic performance while adequate sleep improves performance. There’s some debate as to whether lack of sleep biomechanically affects your fitness abilities, but researchers think that fitness performance decreases after sleep deprivation because working out just feels harder. Most people already know that from their own experience. Everything feels tough on no sleep.
To press snooze, or slip on your gym shoes?
Plus, lack of sleep can affect your motivation to work out in the first place. You might find yourself dreading your workouts and hating every minute in the gym — that’s not good for long-term adherence to a fitness plan.
Conversely, getting enough sleep can improve the likelihood that you’re encouraged to work out in the morning.
Without sleep, your muscles can’t recover from the stress you put them through during workouts. It doesn’t do you much good to keep breaking down your muscles without giving them time to recover and grow stronger.
Lack of sleep may also contribute to joint pain and stiffness, as well as headaches and body aches. If you want to get even more nuanced, sleep deprivation can lead you to make poor food choices, which undoubtedly affects your fitness and physical performance.
What kind of exercise is best when you don’t get enough sleep?
This varies for everyone. Gentle movement that you thoroughly enjoy is a good rule of thumb to go by.
For me, going for a 30-minute walk in the sunshine followed by a 30-minute stretching flow is the antidote to a poor night of sleep. I always feel refreshed and I still get the endorphin rush from exercise. I also feel accomplished and proud of myself for honoring what my body was telling me.
You might go for a leisurely bike ride, an easy to moderate hike, or take a dip in a pool. You could also dance around your living room, go rollerblading, practice a skill you want to learn (like nailing a handstand) or dedicate your usual workout time to getting some yard work done.
Do anything that makes you feel happy and refreshed. This is about hitting the reset button for yourself, not doing some form of exercise because you feel obligated to.
What to do when you don’t have time for both
Honestly, the best thing to do is to just accept it. Sometimes you will have time for both sleep and exercise, and sometimes you won’t — that’s the reality of modern society. Accept life’s phases and prioritize sleep.
This doesn’t mean neglect all exercise, though. When you don’t get enough sleep, replace your usual intense workout with gentle exercise, as described above.
If you find that you’re constantly sleep deprived and never have time for any sort of exercise, it may be worth examining how you spend your time. If you spend a lot of time on social media or watching TV, you can replace those precious minutes with some exercise (you can even work out while you binge-watch your favorite show!).
Science has shown us that sprinkling several short bouts of exercise throughout your day can lead to immense health benefits. Instead of spending five minutes scrolling, try using those five minutes to go on a short walk, do a few sets of bodyweight squats or practice your push-up form.
Scheduling in time for movement has been key to my success (and to my personal training clients’ success). Really: I write down my workouts in my planner every week and make it a point to treat those workouts like meetings or conference calls — in pencil, I might add, in case I need to erase or modify a workout after a night of poor sleep.
When it comes to fitness, everything counts, even if all you can do today is park your car at the back of the lot so you walk further. Instead of the pervasive “all or nothing” mindset, try adopting something different: “always something.” You might find yourself surprised at how easily exercise comes to you with this mindset, and your body will thank you for prioritizing sleep.
Take this all into consideration next time you’re debating whether to press snooze or slip on your gym shoes.