Sleep quality is something, regardless of age, gender, or health status, we all need, and many people don’t get enough of it. For some people, a lack of sleep stems from the fact that they don’t make it a priority. Others don’t sleep enough because they suffer from chronic insomnia. According to the National Sleep Foundation, about one in three adults has chronic sleep problems, and the risk increases with age. Sleep is eluding too many of us!
You can get other health habits, like diet and exercise, but if you’re not sleeping enough, you may still be compromising your personal health. Studies link sleeping less than 7 hours per night with a higher risk of health problems, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as a greater risk of dying prematurely. So, sleep matters! Plus, we know that sleep is important for recovery from exercise and for maximizing fitness gains.
Still, there are many myths about sleep and exercise that are important to dispel. Let’s look at some of the most common ones and what science says about them.
Myth: Exercise Hypes You Up and Interferes with Sleep Quality
Too many people still believe that exercising makes it harder to sleep, but research shows the opposite. Exercise helps us sleep better! When you look at meta-analyses of sleep studies, the evidence shows that exercise is an important part of the sleep equation. People who exercise slumber better than those who don’t.
In fact, when researchers looked at 34 different studies on the impact of exercise on sleep, 29 showed a link between exercise and improvements in sleep duration and sleep quality. In contrast, four studies showed no impact, and only one found a negative association between exercise and sleep quality. So, it looks like exercise is a lifestyle habit that can upgrade your ability to sleep!
Myth: Low-Intensity Exercise is Best for Helping You Sleep Better
Intuitively, you might think that high-intensity exercise would be more detrimental to sleep than a low-intensity workout since vigorous workouts hype the body up but there’s no evidence to support this. In a survey by the National Sleep Foundation, people who exercise vigorously were twice as likely to report sleeping well most nights relative to those who did less intense forms of exercise or didn’t exercise at all. High-intensity exercise does ramp up your body’s sympathetic or fight-or-flight portion of the nervous but despite this, sleep quality is still better in those who do high-intensity workouts. Go figure!
Myth: Exercising Before Bedtime is Bad for Sleep Quality
This, too, is a common myth that is debunked by research studies and by the National Sleep Foundation. In fact, a 2011 study found that participants slept the same when they worked out 35 minutes before bedtime as when they didn’t exercise prior to sleep. However, there is a small sub-group of chronically “hyped-up” people who may have a harder time sleeping after exercising before bed. However, the average person won’t be negatively affected. In fact, a meta-analysis found that exercising an hour before sleep can increase sleep latency, the time it takes to fall asleep. But overall sleep quality was not impaired, in general, by evening exercise.
Myth: The Rise in Body Temperature You Get from Exercise Interferes with Sleep
It’s true that exercise raises your core body temperature. You can feel the effects when you break into a sweat, but your core body temperature gradually falls during and after exercise recovery and that can help you sleep. Research shows the drop in body temperature you get after recovering from a workout helps bring on sleep by triggering the release of melatonin, a hormone involved in sleep and the sleep-wake cycle. Studies also show a warm bath before bedtime decreases the time it takes to fall asleep. The mechanism here is the same. A warm bath sparks a rise in body temperature and when you step out of the bathtub it drops.
Myth: You Need Less Sleep When You Exercise
That athletic people need less sleep is another common misconception that lacks scientific support. Some people believe that because exercise makes you healthier and more physically fit that sleep requirements drop. In reality, you may need more sleep if you do intense workouts. Being fatigued can slow recovery from exercise, reduce motivation, and make workouts feel harder. Plus, skimping on sleep may increase your risk of injury.
Most experts believe we need at least seven hours of sleep per night and closer to eight is optimal. What happens if you get less? A study showed that sleeping six hours or fewer per night led to mental and physical cognitive deficits equivalent to two nights of not sleeping at all. Interestingly, in the study, the subjects weren’t aware that their cognitive performance was impaired. So, you can be sleep deprived and think you’re functioning okay and you’re not. Don’t count on how you feel to determine whether you’re getting enough sleep, especially if you consume a lot of caffeine and mask the fatigue.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of whether you believe these myths, sleep is important for your health and wellbeing, and there’s no substitute for getting enough of it! The overwhelming evidence suggests that regular exercise improves sleep quality, regardless of what time of day you do it. Plus, staying physically active lowers risk factors for health problems that can interfere with sleep, such as sleep apnea. Obesity is a major risk factor for sleep apnea and exercise helps with weight control. So, make sure your healthy lifestyle is balanced and you’re getting enough exercise and enough sleep.
· National Sleep Foundation. “Five Facts about Sleep and Exercise”
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· Science Daily. “Physical activity in the evening does not cause sleep problems”
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