The Surprising Science Behind Sleep And Exercise

08/28/2013 08:16 am ET
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By Emily Faherty

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. The trick is being patient: According to recent research, exercising consistently can lead to improvements in sleep over time, but not immediately.

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. 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. 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. And another study reported teenage athletes logged better sleep patterns and were more alert during the day than their peers who exercised significantly less. 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. 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 One study found participants who exercised in the afternoon reported fewer disruptions in sleep than those who hit the gym in the morning. And some researchers think a moderate level of activity at least six hours before bedtime can improve sleep quality. 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.

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