Sleep Is the Most Effortless Workout You Can Do – And It Actually Counts

Guille Faingold

My yoga pants have seen more action running errands than actually running, and based on my actual workout habits, my Daily Burn account should be more accurately dubbed the Bi-Weekly Burn. Maybe it's because I never played sports in high school (does a short-lived stint on the Ultimate Frisbee team count?) or because I used to eat chocolate-chip cookie dough straight from the mixing bowl with absolutely zero regrets — whatever the reason, I've never embraced strenuous workouts. But now that I've hit 25, my laziness is coming back to bite me. Chowing down on a load of Pop-Tarts is one thing, but wanting to walk up a few flights of stairs with breath still in my body is another. So I'm on the hunt for workouts that someone lazy like me can actually handle. The more shortcuts, the better. That's how I stumbled on one fitness routine so easy, you can do it in your sleep.

And, yes, I am literally talking about sleep. Sleep has been scientifically proven over and over again to benefit your physical health. On the flip side, when you sleep fewer than eight hours per night, you increase your risk diabetes, heart disease, and a diminished immune system – ouch.

Since you already spend about a third of your life in bed, why not make the most of that time by hacking your sleep habits to support a (somewhat) healthier life?

I consulted sleep expert Carolyn Schur and champion powerlifter Robert Herbst to get their take on using sleep as the easiest fitness hack in existence. This is what happens to your body when you sleep.

This is how sleep can make or break your physical health:

“You don't get strong in the gym,” Herbst tells me, and I make a mental note to tell that to my husband the next time he suggests I join him for a fitness session. But, joking aside, Herbst continues: “You get strong outside the gym when you recuperate.”

Herbst explains to me that weight training and other strenuous activities cause muscles to tear. It's only after this strain that your body repairs and grows muscle, and that process happens largely during sleep.

Schur points out that sleep also provides us with greater energy and motivation to exercise, plus the discipline to make better lifestyle choices, like improving our diet. According to Schur, someone who's tired might lack the energy or the clear judgment to eat a nutritional meal. Instead, they'll opt for “quick energy,” usually in the form of unhealthy sugar or carbs.

In other words, sleep has numerous restorative qualities that lead to better overall wellness, including physical health. That's good news for me, because if there's one thing I love, it's sleep.

You can use sleep to hack your fitness routine.

Of course we should never use sleep as a complete substitute for other healthy habits, like eating well or staying physically active. But if you don't follow proper sleep hygiene, those other habits are less likely to stick.

For example, rather than depriving yourself of valuable rest to get up at the crack of dawn for the gym, Schur says “you are better off sleeping.” Then, she says, you can make time for a walk or run at lunch or in the evening. Moderate exercise a few hours before bedtime will, in turn, lead to deeper sleep.

Now you have science to back you up the next time your gym buddy tries to drag you out of bed for a morning run – you're welcome.

Herbst recommends one hack that turns this pattern on its head: He suggests taking a short nap before exercise to trick your body into releasing the hormones that help produce muscle.

Either approach means relying on sleep as a vital element in your fitness routine.

Here's how you can sleep better at night to enhance your fitness:

Schur explains that you should “sleep at a time that is physiologically appropriate for you.” This means that one person's natural sleep rhythms might fall later than another person's rhythms, hence the common distinction between night owls and early birds.

Find the time that your body naturally starts getting tired and set a regular sleep schedule based on that.

Schur further recommends avoiding naps too close to bedtime, and using the time just before bed to do a 10-minute mental dump – writing down anything and everything occupying your thoughts in order to empty your mind before sleep.

Along with my diet and fitness routines, as I've reached my mid-20s, I've had to reevaluate my own sleep habits.

When I started experiencing back pain (yay for getting older), I graduated from a hand-me-down mattress on the floor to a more supportive mattress on a decent bed frame. I've also reduced the time I spend on my phone in the evening hours, and I try to eat sleep-inducing foods like bananas or yogurt.

If you want to use sleep to enhance your physical health, the most important lesson you can learn is to protect your sleep like it's sacred: Treat yourself to a bedroom environment that promotes restful sleep, commit to a healthy bedtime routine, and engage in habits that will support your sleep rather than detract from it.

Welcome to No Sweat: an exhausted girl's guide to squeezing in fitness. This content package is for the woman who wants to find an exercise routine that doesn't feel like a chore. No Sweat isn't changing the shape of your body; it's about feeling stronger, happier, and more energetic. Because working out doesn't mean you have to break a sweat.