Ask LH: Is It Better To Get More Sleep Or More Exercise?

Dear Lifehacker, I get up at 5am for work, and when I get home I’m cooking, cleaning, helping with homework, spending time with my family and then I’m in bed at 9pm. If I were to exercise daily, it would be cutting into my bedtime, so I want to know – for general health, am I better off getting an hour’s exercise in before hitting the hay, or will the extra hour’s sleep be better for me? Alternatively, can you see a time in my schedule where I might be able to fit some physical activity in? Cheers, Wanting To Be Healthier

Dear WTBH,

As a sentient blob permanently grafted to his computer screen, I’m not the best person to answer this question. So I asked Professor Greg Roach, a professor at the Appleton Institute for Behavioural Science instead.

Professor Roach specialises in sleep and circadian rhythms and its effect on neurobehavioural performance. He has headed several laboratory-based studies into chronic sleep loss and irregular sleep/wake patterns. Unsurprisingly, Roach is in the more-sleep, less-exercise camp.

“My opinion is that if you have limited time, you are better off getting less exercise than less sleep,” Roach explained. “This is because sleep is fundamental. If you miss too much, you can’t be happy, you can’t be healthy and you can’t be effective at work.”

Professor Roach also pointed out that it’s possible to “accidentally” get exercise via day-to-day activities — walking from the train station to work, or jogging to avoid the rain, for example. By contrast, it’s not possible to accidentally catch up on sleep during the day. You’re either awake, or you’re not.

In addition to this, studies have shown that sleep loss is accumulative, which means you’ll start to feel worse if you skip just one hour multiple days in a week.

“If you miss out an hour on Monday, then you’re one hour down. Then if you do the same thing on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday you’re actually five hours down. This can impact your capacity to work and function effectively as well as your mood. If you keep doing it, it can be detrimental to your long-term health. [This] includes diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.”

With that said, Professor Roach acknowledged that to be truly happy and healthy, sleep and an active lifestyle go hand in hand. However, if you absolutely must choose one or the other, you’re better off getting a full night’s sleep.

“Think about it this way: If you skipped exercise for week, the affect on your health wouldn’t be dramatic. If you didn’t sleep for a week, you would be in a very, very bad way. If you can’t organise your sleeping patterns to take into account that you’re getting up earlier to hit the gym, then you’re actually going to be doing yourself a disservice.”

So there you have it. If it comes down to one or the other, you should skip the early gym session and stay warm ‘n’ toasty in bed. This makes us so happy.

As to the second part of your question, if you work in an office it might be possible to get some exercise on the job. Standing desks, inflatable fitness balls and even desk treadmills can be incorporated into most workplace layouts with minimal fuss. You just need to convince your manager that investing in the equipment will transform you into a healthier, happier and more productive worker. Good luck!


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