12 exercises for a better night's sleep

When it comes to your health, getting the right amount of sleep may be the most important thing you can do for your body and mind. Maybe you eat healthy and exercise an hour (or even two) a day, but those pale in comparison to sleep, something you spend one-third of your life doing. Unfortunately, almost everyone struggles with sleep at some point, whether it’s falling asleep, staying asleep, or just getting enough. That’s why we spoke with fitness professionals, doctors, and sleep specialists to give you a list of exercises, and tips, for a better night’s rest.

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1. Control Your Breath
A hectic lifestyle means your mind and body are constantly on the go. Before you go to bed, though, it is helpful to slow everything down. One of the best methods is to practice some breathing exercises. The simplest: sit cross-legged (or in any position that’s comfortable) on a soft surface like a yoga mat, inhale deeply for 5 to 7 seconds, hold the breath for an equal amount of time, then exhale for as long as you can. By the time you’ve finished repeating this for 10 rounds, you should feel a lot calmer, and hopefully, a lot sleepier.

2. Massage Your Feet
Your feet are the main point of contact with the earth, and over the course of a day, they can take a heck of a beating. Rubbing them not only relaxes those tiny, overused little muscles, but also slows your nervous system and stimulates your internal organs, explains Angi McClure, a licensed massage therapist, fitness instructor, and founder of MYMA Movement. McClure says to especially focus on an acupuncture point in the center of the foot, just below the knuckles, where, when pressure is applied, will calm you down like nothing else.

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3. Feel Your Forearms
Whether it’s typing all day at a computer, carrying heavy bags, or lifting weights in the gym, your forearms are constantly being used throughout the day. “They tend to hold a lot of tension, and [massaging them] can resonate not only in the neck, but also emotionally in the head,” says McClure.

4. Hug and Love Yourself 
In a standing position, reach your arms out wide as you inhale, then exhale as you wrap your arms around your body, as if giving yourself a hug, advises McClure. Focusing on your breath as your perform the move with help draw your energy inward and push aside all external distractions.

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5. Stretch Your Chest
“Stretching the front of the chest can open up the heart and release any tension that we hold in that area, [be it] physically or mentally,” says McClure. One technique: Stand in a doorway and push your arms into the frame, palms facing outward, creating an ‘M’ shape. Next, step forward a foot or two to create a deeper opening in the chest. If it feels like too much, back off, or stretch with only one arm at a time. Be aware of your breath as you do this, and close your eyes if it feels comfortable.

6. Howdy Horse Stance
The horse stance is a Qigong exercise where you stand, feet a bit wider than shoulder width, soften your knees, and drop your tailbone down until your butt is parallel to the ground. Next, reach your hands above your head as you inhale then slowly lower your hands to your stomach as you exhale. The aim of this exercise is to connect your body’s energy (called chi) with the earth, and to center your mind. Repeat the arms movement and inhale/exhale ten times, and your mind should be clear and relaxed.

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7. Qi Ball Hold
The Qi ball hold is a Tai Chi exercise where you stand and place your hands in front of your stomach as if you were holding a beach ball with your right hand on the top, and your left hand on the bottom. Matching your breath with the movement, alternate your hands so your left hand is on the top, right hand on the bottom, continuing to switch hands as you breathe. The soft swinging movement of your arms works “to center the body, calm the breath, and prepare the mind for sleep,” says McClure.

8. Keep a Routine
With everything going on in life, maintaining a solid routine can be difficult, but given its importance, that’s no excuse. “Having a routine and going to sleep at a similar time every night is extremely important because one of the things that fights against us is what is call our circadian rhythm,” says Dr. Jeremy Weingarten, M.D., M.S., director of the Center for Sleep Disorders and the Pulmonary Physiology Laboratory at New York Methodist Hospital. “Circadian rhythm is a timing of sleep that our body naturally has and that’s based on light, daytime and nighttime patterns, and the release of melatonin. If we’re not going to sleep at the same time every night, we’re fighting our intrinsic biological sleep initiation pattern.”

9. Take a Hot Bath
Your core body temperature drops when you sleep, so taking a hot bath would seem counter-intuitive, but Dr. Weingarten says it may actually help you fall asleep quicker. “If you take a hot bath before bedtime, when you come out of the bath, your body temperature immediately drops, and so [taking a bath] sometimes helps people drift off to sleep.”

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10. Stay Out of Bed Until Bedtime
Your bed is for one thing: sleeping. Keep it that way, says Dr. Weingarten. “The associations we develop of being in bed and doing other activities sets up a very bad pattern where our minds and our subconscious start to believe that being in bed and being awake is an alright thing,” Dr. Weingarten explains. “Avoid any activities in the bed, like watching television, eating, even reading in bed.” And if reading before bed is your thing, use a book, not an iPad or computer. The reason: bright light from computer screens suppress the release of melatonin.

11. Listen to Your Body
Some people believe exercising in the morning helps you sleep because by night, you’re exhausted. Others believe exercising at night is a better choice. In the end, it’s up to you. “It’s really a trial and error kind of thing,” says Dr. Wiengarten. “You can’t predict how an individual is going to respond to exercise in terms of their sleep initiation or quality.” Try exercising in the morning one week, gauge your sleep, and then try exercising at night. Whichever one helps you sleep better is the answer for you.

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12. Manage Your Stress
Maybe the reason everyone struggles with sleep at some point or another is everyone struggles with stress and anxiety now and then. Managing, and decreasing stress and anxiety, might be the most effective way to improve your sleep. “Our stressful lifestyle, and levels of anxiety and depression definitely affect our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep,” says Dr. Weingarten. “Those are probably the most common causes of insomnia.”

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