Of all the excuses for skipping a workout, getting more sleep seems to be a pretty legit one. Deep down, you know waking up to exercise will make the stress of your day feel more manageable, but you also know that getting enough sleep is going to make you happy and healthy, too. One of these options requires energy and sweat, and the other involves your pillow and glorious bed. So, is it better to bask in the extra hour of sleep or suck it up and go to the gym?
This is one of life's impossible questions, and as you may have guessed, the answer is complicated. "Obviously, you want to do both, get sufficient sleep and be physically active — that would be ideal," says Christopher Kline, PhD, assistant professor in the department of health and physical activity at the University of Pittsburgh. But we only have 24 hours in a day, and most of those hours are jam-packed with responsibilities, which means we have to allocate our time wisely. And it often comes down to weighing the benefits of exercise with the benefit of having an hour more of sleep, he says.
A lot of this depends on whether you're a morning person or a night person. For "morning people," waking up on the early side to exercise is probably not going to be that harmful, Dr. Kline says. "Maybe you're getting a little bit less sleep than would be optimal, but you're getting those benefits from the early morning workout," he says. Plus, lots of people experience a high after working out in the morning that can provide energy all day long and cancel out the mild morning grogginess. If it's NBD for you to wake up early, then it might be worth it to work out in the morning.
On the other hand, "asking an evening person to get up early and do a morning workout seems like that would be asking for poor results," Dr. Kline says. Even if you, a night owl, have the best intentions to try to will yourself to be a morning person, waking up early is going against your physiology, he says. Trying to alter your chronotype (aka your "internal clock") will likely backfire, and make you feel miserable, so it's probably not worth it. In other words, if you try to wake up earlier without going to bed earlier, then you'll end up with a sleep deficit that will make you feel worse.
Ultimately, sleep and exercise are both important, and there's not enough research to point to which is better. Some statistical lab analyses suggest that reallocating an hour of sleep to exercise is more beneficial than sleeping in, but it's completely different in real life. Dr. Kline's expert opinion? "I think the health benefits of moderate to vigorous activity do outweigh 30 minutes of extra sleep — but the important caveat is that a person already has at least a sufficient basal amount of sleep," he says. A person's "basal sleep need" is the amount of sleep their body requires to function, and it varies based on age and other genetic factors.
Sleep is a biological necessity for everyone, so if you don't do it, you'll experience some major health repercussions, Dr. Kline says. Exercise is also important, but it's not something that's vital to do every single day. The Department of Health and Human Services suggests that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. In general, people need at least seven hours of sleep a night in order to function, he says. If your morning workout prohibits you from getting those full seven hours, then you should try to find another way to squeeze in exercise throughout the day, or opt for a workout that won't take up a ton of time.
But all this said, even morning people can't resist a snooze button sometimes. There are a few ways that you can try to make the transition from bed to gym a little easier, Dr. Kline says. For example, seeking out light exposure right when you wake up is a "very alerting signal to your body, and helps set your circadian rhythm," he says. Setting out your workout clothes before bed will also give you one less thing to worry about, he says.
And if you need even more motivation to get up out of bed for your workout, keep in mind that exercising will help you sleep sounder later that night. That's reason to get up, right?