Although I hate to admit it, I have little desire to exercise at the end of a long work day. I instruct my patients to exercise to improve sleep, but I find it difficult to follow my own advice. However, the good news is that you don’t need to engage in high-intensity workouts to sleep better. Consistent, short amounts of time spent engaging in low-impact physical activity can improve your slumber.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 4 in 10 adults participate in minimal physical activity during leisure time.¹ In the population of patients that I treat, age and disabilities are reasons people cite for not being physically active. Activities such as swimming or other exercises performed in water help to strengthen the body and improve sleep. If these types of exercise are too strenuous, I suggest simply walking in a pool.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) reports surprising relationships between exercise and sleep.² Not only do short amounts of time spent participating in physical activity help to improve sleep, but exercising before bedtime may even be appropriate. Typically, as a sleep medicine provider, I suggest not exercising close to bedtime, but research on this topic has been inconsistent. A small study found that exercise before bedtime improved sleep.³ Another study reported that exercise may improve symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) even without weight loss. According to an article published in Sleep, a 12-week exercise program in obese adults with OSA produced a moderate reduction in symptoms. While exercise does not cure OSA, it appeared to provide benefits for the patients in the study.⁴
As mentioned in previous articles, I enjoy reading the National Sleep Foundation’s yearly Sleep in America® polls. In 2013, the organization conducted a study of the effects of exercise on sleep. Unsurprisingly, the data show that exercise improves sleep overall, and in those who classify themselves as vigorous exercisers, sleep problems are rarely seen.⁵
I wish I could say that I will become someone who exercises vigorously, but that may be an exercise in futility. However, after reading about the importance of exercise for improving sleep health, I will continue to encourage my patients to increase the frequency with which they exercise. I too, will at the very least, spend part of my days increasing my own daily steps.
- Schoenborn CA, Adams PF. Sleep duration as a correlate of smoking, alcohol use, leisure-time physical inactivity, and obesity among adults: United States, 2004-2006. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/sleep04-06/sleep04-06.htm. Updated April 7, 2010. Accessed February 6, 2019.
- Research notes: 5 surprising facts about exercise and sleep [news release]. Darien, IL: American Academy of Sleep Medicine; February 26, 2013. https://aasm.org/research-notes-5-surprising-facts-about-exercise-and-sleep/. Accessed February 6, 2019.
- Flausino NH, Da Salva Prado JM, de Queiroz SS, et al. Physical exercise performed before bedtime improves the sleep pattern of healthy young good sleepers. Psychophysiology. 2012;49(2):186-192.
- Kline CE, Crowley EP, Ewing GB, et al. The effect of exercise training on obstructive sleep apnea in sleep quality: a randomized controlled trial. Sleep. 2011;34(12):1631-1640.
- 2013 Sleep in America® Poll: exercise and sleep. Arlington, VA: National Sleep Foundation; February 20, 2013. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/RPT336%20Summary%20of%20Findings%2002%2020%202013.pdf. Accessed February 6, 2019.