12/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Get Moving, Get Sleeping

I love hearing news that confirms lessons I've already given in my presentations, conversations with patients, and published works. Just this past week, another study came out that points to the value exercise has in upping the quality of sleep.

I'm not the first person to tell you that exercise is good for you. But if there's one magic bullet for enhancing the quality of your life--from increasing your overall health to fighting the onset of age-related disease and elevating your mood and sense of well-being--it's exercise. And it can also have a positive impact on your sleep.

When you think about it, most people who complain of sleep problems lead sedentary lives and don't practice a regular exercise routine. Aerobic exercise has shown to aid in sleep primarily by doing two things:

1) helping you fall asleep quicker; and

2) plunging you into deep (or delta) sleep for a longer period of time, which is where you need to be to feel refreshed and restored the next day. Studies on people who participate in aerobic activities show that they have a tendency to secrete more growth hormone at night, which aids in repairing and rejuvenating the body.

The recent study out of Stanford lends more credence to the exercise-sleep connection. Participants in a 12-month study who engaged in a "moderate-intensity exercise program" reported improvements in their sleep. They were able to fall into Stage 2 sleep more quickly and stay there longer, experience fewer awakenings in the night, and feel more rested the next day.

The control group, which didn't have to exercise but instead just got a dose of (likely bland) "health education," didn't report such benefits. 

I know personally and from anecdotal evidence from thousands of patients I've treated that exercise boost sleep. And don't even ask me when the ideal time of day to schedule exercise for a good night's sleep is, because the best answer to that is whenever you can. We have enough to do in a day and too often exercise gets thrown out the window. Following are some tips from my recent book:

How the Get the Most Out of Exercise's Benefits

  • Get a physical and discuss your goals to get fit with your doctor, ruling out any medical issues you need to address in pursuit of establishing an exercise program.
  • Experiment with exercise at different times of the day: first find a convenient time and then worry about whether it disrupts your sleep or not.
  • Include cardio training, strength training, and stretching for flexibility.  
  • Be sure to get your heart rate up for at least 20 to 30 minutes most days of the week.
  • Build your fitness level slowly; don't jump into a strenuous fitness routine too quickly.
  • Exercise in bright outdoor light if possible.

If you haven't thought about New Year's Resolutions yet, consider this: if you vow to get more exercise into your life, you'll probably simultaneously sleep better, too. Now that's killing two Resolution birds with one stone.

This article on sleep is also available at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog.