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Can Exercise Combat Jet Lag?

Muscle and Fitness logo Muscle and Fitness 02/08/2019 Andrew Gutman

Fit celebrities like UFC commentator Joe Rogan, who travels quite a bit for work, have alluded to using exercise to "knock down jet lag," on Instagram posts.

While chest presses and burpees are great ways to grow your pecs and burn fat, we’re skeptical on if they’d actually improve your sleep after entering a new time zone. To find out if working out can help fight jet lag, we asked William Chris Winter, M.D., a sleep specialist and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How To Fix It.

“Yes and no,” Winter says. “I think if you’re using exercise to inspire a little sleepiness or you’re sleepy and you need to wake up and postpone your bedtime, then sure. Our brain looks to exercise to determine where it is in a sleep cycle.” In other words, exercise itself won't have any direct effect on your post-travel grogginess. 

a person on the machine: Man performing a single-arm dumbbell row on a bench © AMI Man performing a single-arm dumbbell row on a bench

Jet lag occurs when an individual's internal clock is thrown off. Eating, training, and sleeping are all elements that contribute to our circadian rhythm, or a biological schedule dictated by everyday patterns. When you enter a new timezone, you take your body out of its natural routine. “If at 3 in the afternoon is when you eat, your body is releasing your digestive enzymes for that cobb salad," Winter says. "Then, if you’re eating pasta alfredo in Italy in the middle of the night where you’re from, you’re surprising your brain with these factors.”

Related slideshow: Healthy alternatives for people who hate working out (Provided by Photo Services)

For trips with a more extreme time change, the best way to nip jet lag in the bud is to start before you leave. “Start moving your schedule closer to the schedule you’re going to be on,” Winter says. You can start to eat, sleep, and workout closer to when you would in a new time zone. If you’re not able to get into a new routine, then be prepared to suffer through a day or so of adjusting. Winter also notes that traveling east to west is easier to acclimate to as, “it’s easier to postpone a drive like eating or sleeping versus hastening it,” he says. “If you’re not hungry, you’re just not hungry."

The severity of which jet lag can occur is a person-to-person case, says Winter. Even an hour can throw some people off. However, if you take a couple of domestic trips per year, then you probably don’t have to worry much about the side effects of jet lag, which, Winter says, include drowsiness, digestive issues, and irritability and moodiness. “But if your job has you moving back and forth a lot, it can actually be quite bad,” he adds. In the long term, Winter says that jet lag has been shown to induce insomnia and that a severe lack of sleep is as dangerous as carcinogens.

So, is exercise the cure for jet lag? Not really, but it can help you establish a timezone-friendly routine when you arrive. That said, Winter warns against pushing yourself too hard too soon.

“If you feel incapacitated by the jet lag, then back off,” Winter says. "I think that it’s common sense to not do something really intense if you don’t feel up to it. But if you feel up for it you can do whatever you want, there’s no real danger.”


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