One of the most frequently asked questions we hear as Sleep Specialists is “What are some easy things I can do to get a better night’s sleep?” While there are many things that influence how much deep, restorative sleep a person gets, one is probably overlooked but still incredibly important: physical activity.
A recent study in the Journal of Mental Health and Physical Activity among 2,600 men and women between the ages of 18-85 found that people who engaged in 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week improved sleep quality by 65%. Additionally, the study found a 68% decrease in leg cramping and a 45% decrease in difficult concentrating compared to those that did not exercise.
Many other studies show similar findings. For example, a study at Northwest University found that exercise and sleep were mutually beneficial to one another. Good sleep led to longer, more intense workout sessions, which led to better sleep and strengthened circadian rhythms, creating a cycle of improved health and well- being. Experts suggest thinking about the relationship between exercise and sleep in the same way as exercise and weight loss – that it is a gradual process, not an overnight fix.
Regarding when to exercise: there have been some surprising developments in research on that topic! Conventional wisdom told people not to work out too close to bedtime, which could lead to restlessness. But a 2013 sleep poll found that people who exercised at any time of the day slept better than those who didn’t, even if it that activity took place at nighttime.
For many busy adults, burdened with work and family responsibilities, right before bed may actually be the easiest time to work up a sweat, so don’t let an outdated idea keep you from getting in the workout your body craves for optimal sleep.
The idea that exercise is healthy isn’t news to anyone. We all know mood, metabolism, blood pressure, and risk for heart disease, obesity and diabetes can be influenced by how active you are. But as sleep scientists explore the link between sleep and physical activity more and more, it seems clear that if you’re tossing and turning, and having trouble feeling alert during the day, reaching for your running shoes may be a better choice than reaching for those sleeping pills.