Is exercising outdoors better for our sleep habits than exercising inside? If we do get outside and get moving, does the time of day affect how well we will sleep that night?

We know that there is no substitute for natural sunlight. Research shows that our internal clocks simply do not respond to electric lights the same way we take cues from the sun. For this reason, a group of researchers sought out to determine how the combination of exercise and time spent outdoors could benefit and/or influence our sleep cycles.

The study, published in 2017, was the first of its kind to use a 24-hour accelerometer (a device that detects human movement by measuring acceleration) and GPS data to determine how time outdoors, time of day, and physical activity affect sleep patterns.

Over 350 women between the ages of 21 and 75 years old from four different states across the U.S. were included in the final analysis. The study lasted for an entire year, during which time participants completed surveys and kept sleep logs in addition to wearing activity tracking devices.

The data showed that women who spent less time outdoors got less sleep each night, even as their physical activity levels increased. This finding confirms the importance of spending time outside every day for better sleep health—but does the time of day matter?

The researchers hypothesized that people who spent more time outdoors in the morning (rather than the afternoon) would have better sleep health. They were mostly correct. More time spent exercising outdoors in the afternoon was linked to lower sleep efficiency, but did not affect total sleep time. Women who exercised outdoors in the afternoon didn’t sleep quite as well as those who got outside in the morning, but they did spend just as much time in bed.

However, the most important takeaway is that any time spent outdoors—even if it is in the afternoon—is better than no time outside at all. Women who spent time outdoors in the afternoon still got more sleep than those who spent less time outside on average.

In addition to spending time outdoors, other research suggests that a consistent daily routine is the key to a good night’s sleep. It could be that exercising outside in the mornings makes it easier to stick to a routine, promoting a healthy lifestyle that includes better sleep. Or, it could be that morning people are more physically active in general and fully exhausted by bedtime. Maybe all of the above is true.

Everyone is different and the best way to maintain healthy habits is by finding what works for you. Lasting change happens incrementally and over time, and we should not feel discouraged when it takes time to see changes. Developing healthy habits to get better sleep won’t happen overnight.

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