Longevity Living | How Exercise Helps (and Hurts) Sleep

People have always advocated ‘Exercise before sleep’. It’s always been thought that this is the one way that you can really sleep like a baby, especially if you’re known to suffer from sleeping disorders. But recent studies show conflicting opinions, so before you start hitting the treadmill and gym hard right before wanting to catch some much needed shut-eye, read on.

The Real Truth behind Exercising to Sleep

These days many people are very quick to run to their family doctor for a much coveted prescription of the strongest sleeping pills in a desperate bit to battle chronic insomnia, but research shows that the right amount of aerobic exercise can help. Researchers at Northwestern University have carried out extensive research regarding this issue and their findings show that steady and consistent aerobic exercise may be the best natural medicine to beat sleep disorders. The good news doesn’t stop there; the right amount of exercise not only helps you sleep, it is also said to drastically improve both a person’s mood and vitality. This is of course great news for the 50% of middle-aged people who’re trying to fight their sleeping problems or chronic insomnia

Exercising in Small Doses does affect Sleep Quality

They say everything’s good in moderation, and this includes small amounts of regular exercise before sleep. Scientists claim that participants in recent studies reported a great improvement in the quality of their overall sleep after light exercise. Many who had once suffered from the negative effects of insomnia happily reported they had transitioned from being a poor sleeper to a good one. After a few months of exercising, those who once fought a daily battle with their sleeping disorders could rest easy knowing they were able to sleep, resulting in more energy, a better memory, less daytime sleepiness, fewer depressive symptoms, and more pep, allowing you to have more stamina throughout the day. Just like your diet, exercise is essential if you want to live a healthy lifestyle and sleep through the night easily without tossing and turning or waking up startled in the middle of the night.

Throwing in the Towel to a Sedentary Lifestyle

A study was carried out amongst a group of mostly women over the age of 55, all of whom have suffered from sleep deprivation, insomnia and the inability to function throughout the day due to lack of sleep. The group was split in 2. One of the groups was instructed to exercise four times a week for 2 20 minute exercise sessions. Exercises differed and included walking outdoors, using the treadmill and riding on a stationary gym bike. The prescribed exercise was light, and it’s fair to say no participant exerted themselves physically with all participants remaining 75% or less below the maximum heart rate.  The second group was instructed to remain inactive, only taking part in recreational activities such as cooking classes and other recreational activities that didn’t require physical input (Linden, K. 11). The results weren’t really that surprising; with those exercising being able to sleep soundly through the night in comparison to how they were at the beginning of the study – tired, frazzled, fatigued, and weak. On average they were sleeping from 45 minutes to up to an hour longer each night. Additionally, their sleeps weren’t as broken and they were able to sleep throughout the night more easily. What was surprising was that the exercising didn’t take immediate effect. After 2 full months of exercising on a regular basis the participants sleep patterns and cycles had not changed. Instead it took a period of 4 whole months for there to be any positive result.(Linden, K. 11).

Does this Mean we Shouldn’t Exercise to Improve Sleep?

If you’re looking for an excuse not to exercise to improve your sleep, this isn’t going to cut it. Long-term moderate exercise does improve the quality of your sleep. It can’t be a one-off thing or a phase. It needs to be done over a period of time. It needs to be consistent, and it needs to light to moderate. So, why does it take so long to take effect?

It’s How You’re Wired

People who suffer from insomnia are wired differently. Sleep disturbances in insomnia sufferers are likely due to neurological differences. Doctors have defined these differences as the hyper-arousal of the body’s stress system therefore a one-time workout session is not really enough to overcome it. In some cases exercise may even exacerbate the stress since working out is considered to be a physical stressor (Linden, K. 13). But don’t let this put you off; doing light to moderate daily exercise always has its upside. If you’re able to maintain a good dose of moderate exercise over a period of time, your workout sessions will begin to mute your stress response, making it easier to sleep at night.

All it Takes is 20-30 Minutes

In the short of it, exercising during the day will impact your sleep in the long run. In the evenings, you’ll find it easier to relax and rest better, helping your sleep to become more consistent. Scientists, researchers and personal trainers all agree on one thing – staying physically active on a daily basis will improve your sleep quality. Making small changes in your lifestyle such as walking to work instead of driving or  taking the stairs instead of the elevator all count towards your light daily exercise. Try to be physically active for between 15-30 minutes each day and you’ll eventually see a healthful night’s sleep in the near future (Linden, K. 15). Exercising also has its other benefits that contribute to better sleep. When you exercise, you’ll also speed up your metabolism, have better control over your weight, and improve your cardiovascular health – three things that effectively relieve symptoms of sleep apnea (Linden, K. 18). Basically, it’s obvious that regular light to moderate exercise helps you sleep better. Who doesn’t want to fall asleep faster? Who doesn’t want to have a higher percentage of quality deep sleep? And who doesn’t want to sleep through the night? (Morrone, L. 2011:30)

The Flipside

Weightlifting and extreme workouts have always been popular. In the past, it was predominantly men who would lift their body weight or more in a bid to strengthen the body, but in recent times such exercise regimens have also become popular amongst women as well. Intense workouts push the body’s heart rate to its peak, meaning that’s its more difficult for the body to get back into a state of relaxation. A crazy workout before bed doesn’t put the body under any kind of psychological stress; in fact it leaves you feeling more emotionally stable. However, your body does go through a different kind of stress – a physiological one. An intense workout whether it be a really fast run or a session of pumping iron induces cardiac stress or in simpler terms it speeds up your heart rate. The heart rate increases and the heart becomes enlarged, meaning the body doesn’t have enough time to physically recover, making it more difficult to fall asleep at the right time (Morrone, L. 2011:32). Extreme exercise also has another major effect on the body. When you exercise, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. This hormone is typically released when your body’s under stress. High impact and heavy resistance training quickens the body’s cortisol production, which can affect your health on a number of different levels. Known effects on the body are depression, memory impairment, weight gain, digestive problems, and sleep disorders and disturbances (Seraganian, P. 1993:20). Is this bad news for strength training enthusiasts and marathon runners? No, it isn’t if you exercise at the right time of the day and don’t overdo it.

How to Determine Whether Your Exercise Is Impairing Your Sleep

So, you like working out at night, but how can you tell whether it’s interfering with your precious shuteye? A useful tip is to measure your heart rate after going to the gym and immediately before going to bed. If you measure that your heart rate is 20 beats above the normal rate per minute, it’s likely you’re going to struggle when it comes to falling asleep quickly. Compare it to a night of no intense workout before sleep. If you discover that your hardcore workouts are disrupting your sleep pattern, simply switch the time that you workout and leave your sweat sessions for earlier on in the day. We all need sleep, there’s no doubt about it. When you can improve your sleep, you’ll be able to also improve your mental and physical health. Light training can do you the world of good when it comes to getting more quality sleep, but there’s a limit. Don’t over exert yourself before bed. Be smart and let your body and mind wind down so you’ll be able to have a restful sleep with no disturbances. When it comes to exercise and sleep, it’s all about moderation.

Article Resources:
www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20100917/exercise-helps-you-sleep?page=2 www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20100917/exercise-helps-you-sleep?page=2 well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/21/how-exercise-can-help-us-sleep-better/?_r=0 www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/exercise-and-sleep chriskresser.com/why-you-may-need-to-exercise-less/  

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