Have you ever lay awake at night desperately trying to turn off your thoughts so you can fall asleep? Insomnia is a common problem, affecting up to 30% of adults, and it’s a malady that becomes more frequent with age. Many people also find that insomnia becomes more of a problem when they’re under stress. What’s one of the best stress relievers? Exercise! That’s why there’s ongoing research looking at the impact exercise has on sleep. Can exercise help you fall asleep quicker?
Exercise and Sleep: Can Exercise Help You Sleep Better?
A recent study published in the Journal of Clinic Sleep Medicine looked at how exercise affects sleep patterns. In this study, a group of middle-aged women took part in an exercise program. None of the women exercised regularly at the beginning of the 4-month study, but they slowly increased their fitness level to the point they were exercising, usually on a treadmill, up to 30 minutes at a time three to four days per week. During the course of the study, they also kept a sleep diary and wore tracking devices to monitor their sleep patterns.
Did exercise help them sleep better? There’s good news and bad news. The good news? By the end of the study, the women were sleeping an additional 46 minutes each night, but they didn’t get the benefits of improved sleep right away. Exercising one day didn’t necessarily help them sleep better the same night. Only over time with regular exercise did they begin to experience benefits.
This study concluded that improvements in sleep happen gradually when you start an exercise program. You can’t expect to sleep better the same day you begin working out. Patience, patience, patience. Not surprisingly, on nights the women slept poorly, they exercised less due to fatigue from not sleeping. Not only does exercise alter sleep patterns over the long term, sleep impacts exercise performance in the short term too.
Does Exercise Improve Sleep Quality?
This was a small study that focused on women who didn’t exercise regularly. Is there any other evidence that exercise improves sleep quality? A British study involving over 1,000 people showed that exercise seems to protect against age-related insomnia. In fact, some studies show that exercise is as effective as hypnotic medications commonly used to treat insomnia. That’s a good thing since these medications have a number of side effects including dry mouth, lightheadedness, dizziness and “sleep hangover” the next day whereas exercise has positive benefits and “side effects.”
How Exercise Helps With Insomnia
One way exercise improves sleep quality is by reducing stress and anxiety. Interestingly exercise seems to increase the number of “excitable” neurons in the hippocampus of the brain that fire off when you’re faced with stress. BUT exercise also increases nerve cells that release GABA, a “calming” neurotransmitter that blocks anxiety and restores calm. So exercise gives you more “excitable” neurons but compensates by giving you more nerve cells that produce GABA. That’s a good thing if you’re under stress or trying to sleep.
Why Sleep Is So Important
Why is it important to get seven to eight hours of quality sleep? Insomnia and short sleep duration are linked with reduced activity of natural killer cells, cells that protect against viral infections and play a role in cancer prevention. Lack of sleep also interferes with fat loss by altering appetite hormones, increasing the desire to munch on carby foods. For example, research shows that inadequate sleep increases levels of ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone and decreases leptin, a hormone that signals your brain that you’re full. There are studies linking poor sleep with weight gain. Turns out exercise may help you avoid fat gain in more than one way – by burning calories and helping you sleep better.
The Bottom Line?
Exercise seems to help with insomnia although you may not experience the benefits right away. The key is to work out consistently. Find the workout time that’s best for you. Don’t assume that working out in the afternoon or evening will keep you awake. According to a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, people reported sleeping just as well when they exercised later in the day as they did when they worked out in the morning. Vary your workout times and see how it affects your sleep. This same poll also found that vigorous exercise was more beneficial for sleep than less intense workouts. It also showed that sitting too much negatively impacted sleep quality. The take-home message, move around more if you suffer from insomnia in addition to doing a vigorous workout. Move more during the day and sleep more soundly at night.
Science Daily. “Exercise Is No Quick Cure for Insomnia”
Am Fam Physician. 2007 Aug 15;76(4):517-526.
J Sleep Res. 2003 Sep;12(3):231-8.
J Behav Med. 1994;17(2):217–23.
PLOS Medicine. “Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index”
National Sleep Foundation. “National Sleep Foundation Poll Finds Exercise Key to Good Sleep”
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