We know that getting adequate sleep, as well as being physically active are two essential components for health and wellbeing. Yet, Australians are struggling with both. In Australia 33-45% of adults across all age groups, suffer from inadequate sleep, of either duration or quality. When it comes to exercise, only 15% of adults aged 18-64 meet Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines. Read on to find out how exercise benefits sleep health, as well as your overall health.
The link between exercise and sleep
As a society, we know we need to get more sleep and increase our physical activity levels, but did you also know there is a link between sleep and exercise? Studies including this one have shown there is a bidirectional relationship between the two. That is, exercise leads to better sleep, however poor sleep may contribute to lower levels of physical activity. Therefore not exercising and not sleeping can become a vicious cycle.
In a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation in America (NSF Poll), the link between exercise and sleep was explored and a compelling association between the two was found. The results of the poll indicated that:
- Exercisers sleep better
- Vigorous exercisers reported the best sleep
- Non-exercisers are sleepier and have highest risk for sleep apnea
- Less time sitting is associated with better sleep and overall health
- Exercising at any time of day appears to be good for sleep.
Below we explore the key findings from the poll and provide tips for improving your sleep by increasing your exercise.
1. Exercise for better sleep
Self-described exercisers reported better sleep than self-described non-exercisers even though they say they sleep the same amount each night. Exercisers also reported better quality sleep than non-exercisers.
In addition to the NSF Poll, research has consistently documented that regular exercise promotes more restorative sleep. Exercise lifts mood and reduces stress and anxiety. It can help reset circadian rhythms, promote daytime alertness and bring on sleepiness at night.
The key message is that exercise is great for sleep. For the millions of people who want better sleep, being more active may help. “If you are inactive, adding a 10 minute walk every day could improve your likelihood of a good night’s sleep,” says Max Hirshkowitz, PhD, NSF Poll task force chair.
Bottom line: if you want to improve your sleep, exercise is a key ingredient. But does it matter what type of activity you do?
2. Vigorous exercise is best, but any activity will help
Whilst participants of the NSF Poll who exercised vigorously reported significantly fewer sleep concerns than people who claimed to do little to no physical activity, even moderately intense exercise reaps great sleep benefits. One study revealed that participants who did 80 minutes of moderate activity were able to fall asleep more quickly.
Another study showed that over time, moderate-intensity activity, such as walking, decreased the time it took to fall asleep and increased overall sleep duration. It’s possible this is due to the increase in body temperature during cardiovascular exercise, and the subsequent drop in temperature post workout, that may promote deeper sleep.
Bottom line: while vigorous activity (like aerobic activity and cardio) appears to be best for sleep, exercise of any kind is better than none. So if you really want to improve your sleep, move more every day – doing yoga or walking will provide sleep benefits.
3. Increased health risks for non-exercisers
We know that sleep deprivation negatively effects our health. Among other things, it can lead to reduced alertness, slower reaction time, poorer judgement, poorer memory and reduced concentration. Results of the NSF Poll demonstrated that sleepiness also interferes with many non-exercisers’ safety and quality of life. One in seven non-exercisers (14%) reported having trouble staying awake while driving, eating or engaging in social activity, almost three times the rate of those who exercise (4-6%).
Non-exercisers also suffer more symptoms of sleep apnea. “The poll data suggests that the risk of sleep apnea in exercisers is half that of non-exercisers,” says Christopher Kline, PhD, poll task force member. We know that people with sleep apnea are often overweight, and therefore exercise can be part of the treatment for this condition.
Bottom line: reduce the risk to your health and safety, and your risk of sleep apnea, by incorporating more activity into your life and reducing your weight.
4. Avoid sitting for too long
We’ve heard that ‘sitting is the new smoking’ and that a sedentary lifestyle, regardless of your level of exercise, is bad for your health. A sedentary lifestyle increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. But, is there a link between sitting too much, and sleep quality?
According to the NSF Poll – yes there is. The poll was the first to show that simply spending too much time sitting (independent of exercise) might negatively affect sleep quality, since it impacts a number of other important health factors.
“In addition to exercise, standing at your desk, getting up for short breaks, and moving around as much as possible are important healthy behaviors to include in our lives,” says Prof. Marco Tulio de Mello, poll task force member.
Bottom line: move more, sit less and sleep better!
5. Exercising at any time of day appears to be good for sleep
We often hear that you shouldn’t exercise too close to bedtime. The theory goes that exercise before bed may be too energising and heating and therefore disrupt sleep. However in the NSF Poll, there was no difference in the self-reported sleep quality of those who exercised close to bedtime and those who were more active earlier in the day. In fact, for most people exercise at any time seems to be better for sleep than none at all.
These findings were backed up in a recent study, which debunked the commonly held hypothesis that evening exercise negatively affects sleep. In fact, the results of the study lead the authors to conclude the opposite. However they did find that sleep-onset latency (time it takes to fall asleep), total sleep time, and sleep efficiency might be impaired after vigorous exercise ending less than 1 hour before bedtime.
Dr. Barbara Phillips, NSF Poll task force member stated that “Exercise is beneficial to sleep. It’s time to revise global recommendations for improving sleep and put exercise – any time – at the top of our list for healthy sleep habits,” says.
And National Sleep Foundation did just that and amended their sleep recommendations for “normal” sleepers to encourage exercise without any caveat to time of day, as long as it’s not at the expense of sleep. For those with chronic insomnia however, they recommend continuing to restrict late evening and night exercise, if this is part of their treatment regimen.
Bottom line: exercise any time of day that suits you but be consistent. Preferably avoid overly vigorous workouts right before bed, especially if you have chronic insomnia.
If you are struggling to get good sleep, take a look at your level of physical activity and exercise habits. It may seem like a struggle to exercise when you’re tired but failing to do so may keep you trapped in a cycle of poor sleep and inactivity, both of which negatively impact health over the long term. Start small with 10-30 minutes walks every day, then add some more vigorous activity a few times a week. As we’ve seen above, any form of regular exercise, at any time of day will help, so find what works best for you. In addition, avoid sitting too long – get a standing desk or set your alarm to get up and stretch every 30 minutes. And if all else fails, don’t be afraid to seek help – enlist a personal trainer or health professional to help you incorporate more activity into your life, and improve your sleep.
Please note: This article is not to be used as medical advice. Please consult a medical professional before using any sleep treatments. If you think you may have Sleep Apnea visit your doctor as soon as possible. This post may contain affiliate links.