Can’t sleep? Sleep is essential for recovery and can help to prevent injuries and enable us to perform at our best when we exercise. If you’re struggling to get to sleep or you fall asleep and keep waking, you may need to make some lifestyle tweaks.

During the pandemic, you may be struggling to get to sleep. Worries about health, income and the future may be keeping you awake. It’s easy to think ahead and ponder what the future may hold, but this could lead to sleepless nights. According to The Sleep Foundation, sleep is critical to physical health and effective functioning of the immune system. It’s also a key promoter of emotional wellness and mental health, helping to beat back stress, depression, and anxiety. These are all things we need to overcome during the current lockdown.

What’s the best exercise for sleep?

‘Any form of exercise during the day that raises your heart rate will improve sleep because your body will need to repair itself,’ says James Wilson, sleep expert and founder of The Sleep Lab. ‘The early stage of sleep is deep or slow-wave sleep, and it’s incredibly important for muscle regeneration and recovery. So if you’ve exercised, you’ll probably get better quality deep sleep because you’ll need it as a result of the exercise you’ve done. Most types of exercise would improve deep sleep, generally, but in an hour or so before bed, doing something where you’re dropping your heart rate and controlling your breathing, such as mindful yoga, Pilates or even taking an evening walk, can contribute to better quality sleep. REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep happens later in the night. It’s associated with muscle memory, so is useful for sports such as football or tennis, but unfortunately, there’s no particular type of exercise to improve REM sleep.’

How late in the evening should you exercise?

While, for many of us, exercising in the evening is the only suitable time, we may be hampering our efforts to get to sleep.

Chris Baird, senior strength and conditioning coach at Loughborough Sport and training lead at personalised health and fitness app Oro says: ‘Sleep is controlled by three key processes – circadian rhythms (linked to the 24-hour clock); sleep homeostasis (your body’s need for sleep) and your psychological state, especially how calm you feel. Any potential impact of exercise on sleep is likely due to disturbances in these areas. Your core body temperature, blood pressure and psychological alertness also play a crucial role in regulating sleep, and how much these change during exercise depends on the type and duration of the activity, environmental conditions and your own physiology.

‘That said, research suggests an hour is probably enough time for small-to-moderate increases in measures such as your core body temperature to return to a level that is unlikely to negatively impact sleep. So, high-intensity training aside, the rule of thumb is to avoid exercising 60 minutes before your planned bedtime. An exception to this might be activities that promote a positive sleep state such as yoga.’

Can food or drink aid sleep?

Dr Carrie Ruxton, dietician, author and member of the Tea Advisory Panel says: ‘Eating fruit can help promote restful sleep. Several studies have been done on tart cherry juice and kiwi fruit taken just before bed. Both promote sleep latency (ability to fall asleep) and duration of sleep. Certain types of cherries contain melatonin, a hormone which promotes sleepiness, and which rises in our blood when it gets dark. Kiwi is probably effective because, like pineapple, bananas and tomatoes, it contains serotonin which regulates the sleep-wake cycle and is converted into melatonin at night.

‘What you drink can also affect your sleep. A review just published in Nutrition & Food Science confirms that chamomile tea improves sleep quality by inducing a sedative-hypnotic effect, while a clinical trial in the journal, Phytotherapy Research, found a nightly drink of passionfruit tea significantly improved sleep quality in a sample of 41 adults.

Can yoga help you sleep?

Yoga teacher Eve Boggenpoel says: ‘Yoga can be really supportive for insomnia as it encourages you slow down, be in the present moment and connect with your body. Aim to start your practise about an hour before you want to go to bed, beginning with a body scan. Lie on your back and slowly take your awareness from your head to your toes, consciously releasing any tension on the out-breath. When you have finished, come to sitting and do five-to-seven minutes of alternate nostril breathing. This will help settle your mind and balance the right and left sides of your body.’

Eve continues: ‘For your main practise, include lots of forward bends as they calm the nervous system and encourage introspection. Try postures such as child’s pose, seated forward fold, head-to-knee forward bend and seated wide-legged forward bend. Alternate these with a seated gentle twist, seated spinal twist or revolved hero or a supine twist, as these open your side waist to improve breathing and help release tension in your spine. Finish either with savasana or lying bound angle pose, resting in the posture for at least seven-to-10 minutes.

‘Rather than moving swiftly from pose to pose, remain in each posture for up to five minutes, lengthening your exhalations to activate your parasympathetic nervous system – the rest and digest system (inhale for a count of four, exhale for eight). Try using props to make your practice even more restorative. Fold your body over a bolster for child’s pose and the seated forward bends and place a rolled blanket beneath your chest and a bolster under your knees in savasana. For lying bound angle pose, place a block or cushion under one end of a bolster, sit at the other end and lie back over it, using blocks to support each knee. This is one of the most relaxing and restorative yoga poses there is! Finally, remember that the results are accumulative, so the more regularly you practise these calming moves, the more you’ll benefit. Sweet dreams!