Think exercising at night will improve your sleep? Think again

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 51-year-old teacher wonders if exercising before bed is having a negative impact on her sleep.

A little about me:

Age: 51

Occupation: teacher

Number of hours sleep you get each night: five to six hours

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: eight hours 

Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems: none, although I’ve experienced insomnia over lockdown

Do you measure your sleep in some way (e.g. using your phone or wearable): no

How much water you drink on average per day: 2 litres of water, plus 2-3 decaf teas during the day and a coffee in the morning

How much exercise I do on average per week: a few hours a week

Day 1

I am trying to get myself into a better bedtime routine but still end up in bed at 10.30pm. During lockdown I have been suffering with insomnia and often have to get up during the night as I am disturbing my partner with my restlessness. Tonight, though, was a better night for sleeping. I woke up at 2am and had a walk around the house and again at 5am. 

Finally, I wake at 7am and get up to shower and dress. I am working from home because I am shielding and, as I have a terrible headache and feel extremely thirsty, I drink two pints of water. Then, I have a cup of tea. Because why not?

Sleep Diaries: I wake up feeling utterly exhausted.

At 11.30am (my normal lunchtime at school) I stop working on the computer, and have brunch of scrambled eggs, avocado, beans and grilled tomato. I also drink another pint of water and another cup of tea. 

I was recently diagnosed as borderline type 2 diabetic, so I know I should be careful about eating sugary products, but I give in to temptation and have a few chocolate buttons. 

I continue working on the computer and at 3.30pm I go out for an hour-long walk, which makes me feel much better, and make sure to drink a pint of water afterwards. Dinner today is homemade aubergine curry with cabbage, and I have a small ice cream for dessert and another pint of water.

Once I’ve eaten, I watch TV while playing on my phone and drink a gin and slimline tonic. By 9.45pm I am in bed, finally falling asleep around 12am. I wake up at 5am feeling really thirsty (as ever) and am awake for half an hour or so, but then fall asleep until 7am.

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Day 2

I’m showered and dressed by 7.30am today, and ready to start work. I have invested in a blood sugar monitor which is attached to my arm, so I check the levels and, disappointed that it is at 6, drink a pint of water and do some exercises to help to bring the levels down. Then I work on the computer and start my welfare calls to my class. 

At 11.30am, I break to have vegetable soup (homemade) and cheese on toast, which I wash down with a pint of water and a cup of tea to keep me going with the rest of my phone calls. Then, at 2pm, I go out for a long walk. 

Using some cans of beans as weights, I do half an hour’s exercise

By 5pm, my partner is home and we both have a scone and a cup of tea. It’s their turn to cook tonight, and we have a curry made with a jar sauce and fried rice, but don’t eat until nearly 9pm. Again, I find it hard to resist temptation and wind up having a chocolate ice cream. 

We stay up late watching TV, and at 11.30pm he decides to go on up to bed. I stay downstairs knowing that my sugars are high; on checking they are 7.9, which isn’t horrendous, but I worry about going to bed with them that high. I drink a pint of water and, using some cans of beans as weights, I do half an hour’s exercise, drink a pint of water and then retest the levels. They are down to 7.1, which is reassuring enough for me to finally head off to bed. 

I sleep until 4am when I wake up with terrible acid reflux so I head off to find some tablets. Then, remembering that my vegetable box will have been delivered, I go out to the shed to collect it. I sleep for a couple of hours but wake up again needing more indigestion tablets and water as I’m also very thirsty.

Day 3

It is Saturday, so my alarm is off and I doze until 10am. I go downstairs to drink a pint of water and check my blood sugar level, which is 4.8 now. I treat myself to breakfast to celebrate this little victory. I eat two tiny clementine oranges from my vegetable box, make some fresh coffee, and have a crumpet with peanut butter. 

We watch TV until 3pm (it’s the weekend!), and then have a cheese and tomato sandwich and half a scone at 3pm with a cup of tea and a pint of water. Then, we head out for a walk which lasts an hour. 

Sleep Diaries: I take a moment away from my desk to have breakfast with my boyfriend.

When we get back, I drink a pint of water and a diet lemonade and do some housework. My levels are 5.8 which I am happy with. 

At 8pm we eat a dinner of vegetable fajitas and again I succumb to a chocolate ice cream. I drink some water and watch some Netflix and at 11pm check my levels which are 6.8. To combat this, I drink some more water and do some exercise with my weights but my levels are now up to 7.8. Ugh.

Eventually, I give up and go to bed at midnight. I am restless and my legs are itchy so I wake up several times scratching my legs and the psoriasis on my scalp (which has become worse during lockdown; it’s driving me crazy). I am up and down all night applying creams to my legs and scalp and worrying about everything.

Day 4

I’m awake early, despite it being a Sunday, and I’m worrying about work; it is upsetting me that I have to shield and I am concerned that my colleagues will not be happy with me. Eventually, though, I get out of bed (around 10am) and have water and crumpets and fresh coffee. 

Today, we head out for two walks, which helps alleviate my stress. In between them, we eat freshly made egg mayo rolls with a cup of tea. 

I make a vegetarian roast dinner but end up dishing it up at 8pm which is too late for me to be eating a big meal. I drink a pint of water and a diet lemonade.

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At 11pm, I head off to bed, feeling happy that my levels are 6.8. I sleep until 2.45am and wake up needing to go to the bathroom. At 5am the birds start singing loudly outside and wake me up. 

I lay worrying for a while then fall asleep again until 7am, when my partner gets up for work.

Day 5

I shower and dress at around 7.30am, before checking my levels; they are 5.2. Yay! To celebrate, I drink a pint of water and have a cup of tea, then I open the laptop and start working on lesson plans and making online videos. 

Prior to lockdown, I attended a diabetes intervention course which encouraged fasting for 12 to 16 hours as a way of managing type 2 diabetes. I wait until 10am, but I’m cold and need something to warm me up so I have tea and crumpet with peanut butter (yes, I know it’s too many carbs for a diabetic!).

At 12pm my intention of a healthy salad goes out of the window when I have a coffee and another crumpet. My blood levels are a good 5.6 so I continue working until 3.10pm, when I head out for a fast walk lasting an hour. 

On my return I drink a pint of water and check my levels which are down to 4.2. My head is starting to hurt and my vision is blurring a bit so I take some painkillers and then do some house work. By 5.10pm my levels have strangely risen to 6.2 so I drink more water. At 5.30pm I have a cup of tea and a packet of cheddars and find that my levels have dropped to 5.2 which is strange. 

Dinner tonight is a tofu scrambled broth, with a choc ice for afters. I drink plenty of water and a sugar free ginger and cinnamon tea. At 11.30pm I head off to bed happy that my sugar levels are 5.2. Sadly, though, my sleep is interrupted by a banging headache.

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “I really feel for you, as you need to be getting good sleep – not just for your energy levels and demanding job, but also so that your diabetes is managed.

“Considering your symptoms – restlessness, itchy skin, headaches, excessive thirst and anxiety – it might be worth getting your hormone levels checked with your GP, and at least looking at some good supplements. Evening Primrose Oil could help, and a magnesium supplement before bedtime might also help with the restlessness.

“I do feel bad about saying this, because I feel you seek a reward at the end of the day in the form of your chocolate ice cream, but it’s not helping you to sleep. Could you have it earlier in the day, maybe, and try a yogurt or some other less sugary snack before bed?”

    Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

    Dr Nerina finishes: “My most important observation, though, is this; exercising at night is over stimulating. Exercises, generally, leave you dehydrated, and working out also releases the stress hormones in the body, leading your body to stay alert, according to the Sleep Matters Club.

    “With all this in mind, I suspect that pre-bedtime exercise, while bringing your blood sugar down, might be exacerbating your sense of restlessness. Try to avoid any vigorous activity in the three hours before bed and instead try something like chi kung, which can be really helpful for diabetes control, stress and good sleep.

    “You could also try deep breathing in yoga postures such as child’s pose or savasana (corpse pose) before you go to bed. And please stop clock-watching during the night!”

    If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at [email protected] with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

    Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

    Images: Getty/Unsplash/Ben Blennerhassett/Taisiia Shestopal

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