The Surprising Science Behind Sleep and Exercise

Having trouble snoozing? After exercising consistently for a few months, we may start to notice ourselves drifting off to dreamland more easily.
The Science Behind Sleep and Exercise

Believe it or not, tossing and turning in the middle of the night is not a suitable form of exercise. But studies suggest making time for an actual workout during the day could be key to a better night’s sleep Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. Reid, K.J., Baron, K.G., Lu, B., et al. Department of Neurology, Northwestern University, Chicago IL, USA, Sleep Medicine 2010 Oct;11(9):934-40.. The trick is being patient: According to recent research, exercising consistently can lead to improvements in sleep over time, but not immediately Exercise to improve sleep in insomnia: exploration of the bidirectional effects. Baron, K.G., Reid, K.J., Zee, P.C. Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 2013 Aug 15;9(8):819-24..

Up All Night—Why It Matters

The benefits of regular exercise seem endless—it can reduce stress levels and anxiety, lower the risk for many diseases, and generally make us shiny, happy people. Studies suggest daily exercise can also improve sleep quality A before and after comparison of the effects of forest walking on the sleep of a community-based sample of people with sleep complaints. Morita, E. Imai, M., Okawa, M., et al. Department of Preventive Medicine, Nagoya University Graduate School of Medicine, Nagoya, Japan. Biopsychosocial Medicine 2011 Oct 14;5:13.. And most of us know getting enough shut-eye each night (usually at least seven hours, though there’s not exactly a magic number for everyone) is important for productivity, mood, and overall health. So getting sweaty during the day should make for an easier lights out. (Just be sure to shower before climbing into bed!)

But, while there are many scientifically-proven ways to improve the time spent between the sheets (no, not that time between the sheets), researchers are still exploring the relationship between exercise and sleep. In one recent study, scientists looked at the effects of exercise on sedentary women and men in their 60s who had been diagnosed with insomnia Exercise to improve sleep in insomnia: exploration of the bidirectional effects. Baron, K.G., Reid, K.J., Zee, P.C. Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 2013 Aug 15;9(8):819-24.. Those who participated in a 16-week exercise intervention slept longer and woke up less often than those who remained inactive. But researchers also noticed that participants’ insomnia only improved after the 16 weeks of exercising were up, and didn’t get better immediately. On the other hand, when the volunteers slept poorly, their workouts the next day were significantly shorter.

Other research has yielded slightly more optimistic results. Some studies suggest that when insomnia patients add moderate exercise to their daily routines, they experience less anxiety and get more sleep at night Effect of acute physical exercise on patients with chronic primary insomnia. Passos, G.S., Poyares, D., Santana, M.G., et al. Univeridade Federal de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brasil, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 2010 Jun 15;6(3):270-5.And another study reported teenage athletes logged better sleep patterns and were more alert during the day than their peers who exercised significantly less High exercise levels are related to favorable sleep patterns and psychological functioning in adolescents: A comparison of athletes and controls. Brand, S., Gerber, M., Beck, J., et al. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2010 Feb; 46 (2): 133-141.. On the other side of the age and activity-level spectrum, research found moderate exercise helped improve the sleeping habits of normally sedentary elderly folks Exercise training improves sleep pattern and metabolic profile in elderly people in a time-dependent manner. Lira, F.S., Pimentel, G.D., Santos, R.V., et al. Departamento de Pscicobiologia, Universidade Federal de Sao Paulo, Brasil. Lipids in Health and Disease 2011 Jul 6;(10):1-6.. Sounds like it’s time to stop watching "The Price is Right" and sign up for that senior citizen football league instead, Gramps!

Get Moving!—The Answer/Debate

The relationship between exercise and sleep quality still depends on factors like exercise intensity and even the time of day of a workout Moderators and mediators of exercise-induced objective sleep improvements in midlife and older adults with sleep complaints. Buman, M.P., Hekler, E.B., Bliwise, D.L., et al. Stanford Prevention Research Center, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA. Health Psychology, 2011 Sep; 30 (5): 579-87.One study found participants who exercised in the afternoon reported fewer disruptions in sleep than those who hit the gym in the morning A before and after comparison of the effects of forest walking on the sleep of a community-based sample of people with sleep complaints. Morita, E. Imai, M., Okawa, M., et al. Department of Preventive Medicine, Nagoya University Graduate School of Medicine, Nagoya, Japan. Biopsychosocial Medicine 2011 Oct 14;5:13.. And some researchers think a moderate level of activity at least six hours before bedtime can improve sleep quality Effects of moderate aerobic exercise training on chronic primary insomnia. Passos, G.S., Poyares, D., Santana, M.G., et al. Sleep Medicine, 2011 Oct 21.. Experts are still a bit undecided when it comes to exercising at night, but most agree it’s best to avoid working out a few hours before hitting the hay. Sorry, guys, that means no more bedroom baseball!

Of course, it can take some time to adjust to a new exercise routine and see any big changes in sleep patterns. But there’s still enough evidence to say it’s worth committing to a more active lifestyle. And, after all, catching some major Zzz’s is a pretty dreamy reward.

This article originally posted December 2011. Updated August 2013.

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