“You need to focus on a couple of things to be primed for sleep,” says Jaspal Singh, M.D., sleep specialist with Carolinas HealthCare System and internal medicine, pulmonary, and critical care expert at Carolinas Medical Center. First, your nutrition, and second, your mental health—they’re both intimately linked with sleeping better, says Singh.
Nutrition, of course, includes eating a balanced diet, but you also want to avoid heavy dinners late at night, especially ones that include spicy, fatty foods. You also need to watch your caffeine consumption in the form of pills, sodas, coffee, and energy drinks. “People don’t realize how much caffeine they’re actually taking in or how long it takes to work out of your system,” he adds. As you get older and your metabolism drops, caffeine’s effects last longer than they used to.
As for the mental health factor, there’s a slew of exercises you could be doing before bed to help you get to sleep faster. From visualization exercises that calm your racing mind to physical movements that actively release tension before bed, Singh has highlighted the ones he recommends to patients, and how to implement them into your daily routine.
If you still feel very drowsy and sleepy during the day, go see your primary care doctor or sleep specialist.
“Easy” bodyweight exercises
“Your body temperature rises with exercise and then drops with your post-exercise cool down, which actually helps you fall asleep,” Singh explains. This usually takes about an hour or so. If you can’t time your HIIT workout, run, or regular strength training session to end an hour before bedtime, stick to light bodyweight exercise like…
Do it: Within an hour before bed. Do a few easy sets of situps or crunches, and/or legs raises to alleviate tightness in your hips and get you breathing methodically. Lunges are great, too. “The key to this is not to do sudden, rapid movements,” Singh says. “You don’t want to blast off 20 pushups and 100 crunches.” Be slow and deliberate; don’t get your heart rate up too high immediately before bed.
“When you’re doing deep-breathing exercises, you want to maintain good posture to get the most benefit,” Singh says. Lie down in bed or sit so your spine is straight, and your trunk is grounded. Take a deep, slow, sustained breath that starts at the bottom of your diaphragm; this is called belly breathing (and can even improve your lifts in the gym). Focus on filling your stomach so it sticks out, then let the oxygen expand from the bottom of your chest cavity up toward your throat, so your lungs are the last to rise.
Do it: Inhale for three counts. Hold it for two. Then, exhale slowly for four. You want the exhale to be longer than the inhale. “The most important thing is to do this while your mind is relaxed,” Singh advises. “You don’t want to deep breathe while watching television or checking email.”
You can go through pretty much any yoga movement before bed so long as you skip any inversions (your head is upside-down) and moves that can stress your groin, Singh says. Poses that are intrinsically more difficult for men (like wheel, headstand, and crow pose) aren’t great before bed because you’re stressing your body rather than lulling it into a state of drowsiness.
Do it: Focus on simple poses, and maintain perfect posture with your ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders. Try these 10 moves.
To quiet the day’s stresses, you have to practice it. “It’s like any other skill,” Singh explains. “It won’t come automatically or immediately; you have to schedule, practice, and commit to it.” Luckily, it’s simple and so easy to implement whether you’re on a plane or lying in bed.
Do it: You probably don’t realize you’re in constant conversation with yourself. Count to 100 and distract your brain. Mentally visualize you’re erasing your thoughts as if you were clearing the trash on your desktop. “Any type of technique or exercise that gets your brain to slow down is great,” Singh says. Start with just five minutes of quiet time, then try to go a bit longer, adding 3-5 minutes each week. “I also highly recommend imagerey: Close your eyes and bring yourself back to a more relaxed place, whether that’s a quiet vacation spot or relaxing memory,” he explains. Stay in this moment until you drift off to sleep.
If you’re only meditating before bed, your body will create a reflex, or an association, so it recognizes this exercise as a trigger that’s relaxing, quiets your mind, and creates this response to sleep. However, some people experience rejuvenation after meditating, and have a hard time falling asleep for some hours after. Do some trial and error; avoid meditation practices that stimulate your mind, and opt for ones that help wind you down. To be safe, meditate at least an hour before you plan to actually fall asleep.
Do it: Turn off all stimuli in your bedroom. Power down your electronics, dim or turn off the lights, and get rid of any distractions. “Now, sitting up in bed, ideally Indian style or in a posture that encourages your spine to stay erect, close your eyes,” Singh says. “Depending on your senses and how much you want to involve them, some people like to have quiet music or a diffuser with a comforting scent. But a lot of my male clients are too macho, so here’s the most helpful tip for them: Meditate with your significant other. You won’t feel as self-conscious doing it together, and it can help create a routine you’ll stick to.
Anything that opens up and releases your most-stressed joints is conducive to sleep. Stretching your hips and back—two of the most worse-for-wear areas on a guy—are particularly important, Singh says.
Do it: “Lie on your front and arch your back, not to the point of pain or injury, but enough to get a stretch,” Singh says. Butterfly stretches are also great before bed, he says.