Can Exercise Help Me Sleep?

Liz Halstead, PhD*
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Long office hours? Can’t switch off? Tense? These are just some of the reasons you might not be getting the sleep you want. 

Can exercise really help combat the impact of daily life on sleep?

Poor sleep quality and taking too long to fall asleep are two sleep difficulties that studies have shown exercise can improve. Even if you are a good sleeper, there are still useful things to know about how exercise can make your sleep better (or worse). 

Your sleep quality can be impacted in many ways, which can affect how you feel during the day. Studies have shown exercise can help manage stress and anxiety, as well as lower the severity of sleep apnoea, a common sleep disorder which affects sleep quality. In addition, exercise can improve the amount and quality of sleep (being one of the countless beneficial health outcomes promoted by adequate exercise). 

Is the time of day I exercise important?

Ever noticed that you are more prone to injury in the mornings or it takes longer to warm up? That is because our core body temperature is lowest in the morning and evening around when we sleep. A higher body temperature can interfere with your ability to fall asleep and have a restful night. When we exercise, our body temperature increases. In the hours after exercise our body temperature naturally lowers, triggering sleepiness. Therefore, exercising in the afternoon can help you to fall asleep more easily at night

What type of exercise is most beneficial to sleep?

Problems with sleep are often associated with stress, anxiety and low mood. Exercise has been shown to reduce these symptoms. Just 5 minutes of exercise can trigger an anti-anxiety response in the body. A regular exercise routine can contribute to reduced stress, which is often a cause of trouble falling asleep or can cause restless nights. Studies have shown that maintaining a routine over time has the most effective benefits for improved sleep. While all forms of exercise can help reduce the symptoms that interfere with quality sleep, exercise such as yoga can impact the parasympathetic nervous system which can help you relax. Yoga is also shown to lower cortisol levels and reduce blood pressure, enhancing your mood. Team and social aspects of exercise can also improve mood.

Getting outdoors is important. Exercising outside can increase your exposure to natural daylight allowing you to absorb more vitamin D. Low vitamin levels can cause daytime fatigue, which can lead to napping. Napping can then impact your sleep quality at night. So, get outside as much as you can. Exercising is a great way of doing so.

How much is too much?

Overtraining can lead to sleep difficulties such as insomnia. Studies have shown that moderate intensity exercise does improve sleep, however, vigorous aerobic exercise can negatively impact sleep. Vigorous exercise depends on your level of fitness (for example, an athlete as compared to someone who has just started training). Research shows that individuals who go from not exercising at all to exercising regularly do improve their sleep overall. 

The take home message is that any exercise is better than no exercise to improve sleep. A routine is important, as is being consistent over time (months of training). Wearing yourself out physically can be counterproductive to sleep and lead to alertness when trying to sleep. So, if you are working out hard and having trouble sleeping, think about a more balanced exercise program. 

 

I’ve had my sleep problem for years - how will this help?

The most common sleep disorder in adults is chronic insomnia, defined as difficulties initiating or maintaining sleep, nonrestorative sleep or waking up too early in the morning. Exercise has been found to improve chronic insomnia. There are of course other effective treatments for your insomnia, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). This is a sleep specific treatment practiced by only a limited number of specialists in the UK, but it is a highly effective treatment with long-term benefits and few side effects. 

*Liz Halstead, PhD, is a leading London-based sleep expert who works in association with Goal Master. She is a chartered psychologist with the British Psychological Society and is trained in therapeutic sleep treatment. Alongside providing private therapy at Treat my Sleep, Dr Halstead is part of the Lifelong Learning and Sleep Laboratory and the University of Central London, Institute of Education, developing research programmes in sleep. Together with her research and clinical work on sleep, Liz’ research interests have focused on resilience, mental health and well-being. 

References

Gao, Q., Kou, T., Zhuang, B., Ren, Y., Dong, X., & Wang, Q. (2018). The Association between vitamin D deficiency and sleep disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients, 10(10), 1395.

Guilleminault C, Clerk A, Black J, Labanowski M, Pelayo R, Claman D. Nondrug treatment trials in psychophysiologic insomnia. Arch Intern Med. 1995;155(8):838-44.

Horne JA, Staff LH. Exercise and sleep: body-heating effects. Sleep. 1983;6(1):36-46.

Kline, C. E. (2014). The bidirectional relationship between exercise and sleep: implications for exercise adherence and sleep improvement. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 8(6), 375-379.

Passos GS, Poyares D, Santana MG, D'Aurea CV, Youngstedt SD, Tufik S, de Mello MT. Effects of moderate aerobic exercise training on chronic primary insomnia. Sleep Med. 2011;12(10):1018-27. 

Passos GS, Poyares D, Santana MG, Garbuio SA, Tufik S, de Mello MT. Effect of acute physical exercise on patients with chronic primary insomnia. J Clin Sleep Med. 2010;6(3):270-275.

Reid KJ, Baron KG, Lu B, Naylor E, Wolfe L, Zee PC. Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. Sleep Med. 2010;11(9):934-40.

 

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