Could Regular Exercise Help You Sleep Better?

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Do you ever have trouble falling asleep at night — or catch yourself nodding off during the day? If so, you’re in good company. A large CDC survey found that over 1/3 of U.S. adults get less than 7 hours of sleep each night, and even more fall asleep during the day unintentionally at least once a month. Worse yet, nearly 5% admit to falling asleep while driving. Here’s some good news for the sleep-deprived:
  • According to a recent study, people who met national guidelines for physical activity (150 minutes/week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes/week of vigorous exercise or a combination of both) reported far better daytime alertness and better sleep quality compared to those who didn’t — plus, they were able to fall asleep faster at bedtime.
  • After adjusting for factors such as weight, health status, and smoking history, the difference in sleep quality between the more active and less active subjects was significant. Those who met national physical activity guidelines were 65% less likely to report daytime sleepiness, 68% less likely to report leg cramps, and 45% less likely to have trouble focusing when fatigued.
  • Another recent study found that 150 minutes/week of aerobic exercise plus resistance training resulted in reduced symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea and better sleep quality in previously inactive overweight and obese subjects — even though no weight loss occurred.
Getting enough good-quality sleep reduces risk of high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and depression, among other health issues. While health professionals have long touted “better sleep” as a benefit of exercise, there’s been a lack of compelling evidence to back it up. But more and more studies are pointing towards a moderate sleep benefit from regular exercise. I definitely sleep better when I’m sticking with my exercise schedule —whether that’s due to less stress, muscles that are more relaxed, physical fatigue, or an unknown factor doesn’t really matter to me. Better sleep certainly isn’t the only reason why I exercise — and it’s not the chief reason why I drag myself out of bed for early-morning workouts — but it’s a pretty nice perk. Why not try your own exercise-sleep experiment? For the next month, keep track of time spent in moderate or vigorous exercise each week. Note how well you’re sleeping — and how alert you feel during the day. If you’re not currently meeting the national physical activity guidelines, gradually increase your exercise time and see if it helps you sleep better. Just make sure you’re not heading out for a run or hitting the stair-climber too late in the day — or the energy burst you get from your workout will keep you up way past your bedtime. If you have persistent sleep issues despite your active lifestyle and good sleep hygiene habits, talk with your doctor. Sleep disorders are very common and often go undiagnosed. Waking up from a night of refreshing sleep sets the stage for a positive mood and a wonderful day. You already know that exercise is beneficial and makes you feel great; better sleep is one more terrific reason to make it a lifelong habit. Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports. Reference
  1. Loprinzi P, Cardinal B, Association between objectively-measured physical activity and sleep, NHANES 2005–2006. Mental Health and Physical Activity Volume 4, Issue 2, December 2011, Pages 65-69 doi:10.1016/j.mhpa.2011.08.001
  2. Kline CE, Crowley EP, Ewing GB, Burch JB, Blair SN, Durstine JL, Davis JM, Youngstedt SD, The effect of exercise training on obstructive sleep apnea and sleep quality: a randomized controlled trial. Sleep. 2011 Dec 1;34(12):1631-40.