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The Benefits of Exercise on Sleep Are a “Long-Term Relationship”

🕑 2 minutes read
Posted August 21, 2013

People who are affected by insomnia frequently complain that the exercise they do during the day does not help them sleep that night. Scientists from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s sleep program and the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital undertook research to find out if that was really the case. The result is the first long-term study to show that, for people with insomnia, aerobic exercise during the day does not directly translate into better sleep the same night.

While most research regarding sleep has focused on the habits of healthy sleepers, this study used data from a 2010 clinical trial that documented the effects of exercise on a cohort of middle-aged and older women with insomnia. The 11 subjects ranged in age from 57 to 70 and their experiences with exercise, mood, and sleep were documented during a 16-week period. Older women are the demographic most likely to be affected by insomnia.

Lead study author Kelly Glazer Baron explained the findings: “If you have insomnia you won’t exercise yourself into sleep right away. It’s a long-term relationship. You have to keep at it and not get discouraged.” Additionally, they found that people exercise less after a night of poor sleep. While sleeping poorly does not affect a person’s capacity for aerobic exercise, it does change her perception and make her feel more exhausted. This creates a cycle for insomniacs who may not exercise due to tiredness, but then cannot sleep well because they do not get enough exercise.

The researchers theorize that exercise may be a healthier option for people affected by insomnia than medication. Although drugs provide a quick fix, exercise has the potential to address the root issue of insomnia. Furthermore, these medications carry extra risks for older adults as they can be related to memory issues or falling. The study only analyzed data from women, but these findings are probably applicable for men as well, since there is no gender difference in treatments for insomnia.

“In the end, sleep still trumps everything as far as health is concerned,” stated senior author Phyllis Zee, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and professor of neurology.

This research is published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

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