Exercise Improves Sleep...But it Takes Time

Regular exercise over the longer term will improve sleep quality and quantity in most people

Is it an urban myth that exercise improves sleep?  No, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2013 report Sleep in America.  By polling adults aged 23-60, it was learned that:

  • More than 75% of exercisers reported good or fairly good sleep in the weeks leading up to the poll, compared to 56% of the non-exercisers.
  • The majority of vigorous exercisers – defined as those who participate in cycling, swimming, running, or any competitive sport – rarely experienced insomnia symptoms.  Half of non-exercisers said they woke during the night, and 24% had difficulty falling asleep every night or almost every night.
  • Paradoxically, the non-exercisers tended to feel the most “sleepy” on a regular basis and to have more symptoms of sleep apnea.
  • Those who sat for less than 8 hours per day were more likely to report “very good” sleep quality than those who sat for longer periods of time.

In the words of poll task force member Barbara A. Phillips, MD, MSPH, FCCP, “Exercise is beneficial to sleep.  It’s time to revise global recommendations for improving sleep and put exercise…at the top of our list of healthy sleep habits”. However, the relationship between sleep and exercise for people who suffer from chronic insomnia is more complicated.  Aerobic exercise performed during the day won’t translate into better sleep that same night, according to Kelly Glazer Baron, a clinical psychologist and director of the behavioral sleep program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "It's a long-term relationship. You have to keep at it and not get discouraged."  Most studies on the daily effects of exercise and sleep have been done with healthy sleepers, and Dr. Baron’s research is the first to demonstrate that aerobic exercise during the day does not result in improved sleep that same night when people have pre-existing sleep problems.  Moreover, while poor sleep does not alter aerobic capacity it does make exercise feel much harder – which often prevents poor sleepers from adhering to an exercise program over the long term.  Sleep and exercise have a positive influence on each other, and those who do not sleep well will probably not feel motivated to exercise.

So how does a person with insomnia reap the benefits of regular exercise on sleep patterns?  Commit to an exercise program for 16 weeks.  Through an analysis of sleep data from 11 women aged 57 to 70 from a 2010 clinical trial, Dr. Baron demonstrated the ability of aerobic exercise to improve sleep, mood and vitality over a 16-week period in middle aged to older adults with insomnia.  This is likely because people with insomnia have a heightened level of brain activity, and it takes time to re-establish a more normal level of neurological activity that facilitates sleep.  As opposed to medications which induce sleep rapidly, exercise is probably a healthier way to improve sleep because it may address the underlying problem.  For older adults – particularly older women, who have the highest rate of insomnia of any group - implementing an exercise program may be the safest approach because many sleep medications cause memory impairment and increase the risk of falling. References: National Sleep Foundation.  Sleep in America.  www.sleepfoundation.org/2013poll. Baron, K.G., Reid, K.J., Zee, P.C. Exercise to Improve Sleep in Insomnia: Exploration of the Bidirectional Effects. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 2013 DOI: 10.5664/jcsm.2930