Not being able to sleep – also referred to as insomnia – can be one of the most frustrating things ever, especially if it continues for more than a few nights. If it goes on for longer than that…well, speaking from personal experience, it’s a disaster.
When I don’t get enough sleep, I find it difficult to focus on my work; I’m cranky and irritable, my relationships suffer, not to mention the detrimental effects on health and well-being.
I take solace in the fact that I’m most definitely not alone in this experience.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that 30% of adults worldwide have difficulty sleeping. This figure increases with age; almost 50% of elderly people suffer from some form of long term sleep problem. (source)
So what can we do to help improve sleep?
One of the things we can do is exercise. Scientific research has established a clear link between exercise and sleep, but it is important to do the right kind of exercise and to get the timing right. In this article, I’m going to take a deeper look into how exercise can help you sleep better.
What Is Insomnia?
Insomnia is defined as difficulty with sleep, but this can take different forms. Some people have difficulty falling asleep when they initially go to bed, tossing and turning before finally dropping off.
Other people have no problem falling asleep quickly when they go to bed, but find they wake several times in the night, resulting in disturbed, poor quality sleep.
A third type of sleep difficulty is sleep disturbance which doesn’t cause waking, but interrupts the normal sleep cycle, resulting in poor quality sleep.
A further type of insomnia is concerned with waking after too little sleep, and not being able to return to sleep again once woken.
Why Is Sleep Important?
It might seem obvious, but there are several different reasons why sleep is important for our bodies. For example, sleep:
- Refreshes our brain and makes sure our nervous system is functioning well
- Gives the body the rest it needs to repair and renew damaged cells and tissues
- Improves memory
- Reduces stress levels
- Improves sports performance
- Revitalizes our immune system
- Promotes good mental and emotional health
- Increases chemicals in the body that help to avoid obesity
- Improves focus and concentration during the day
- Reduces the likelihood of judgment errors and accidents (source)
What Causes Insomnia?
There are a huge variety of factors which can contribute to not getting a decent night’s sleep, such as:
- Stress or anxiety
- Poor or irregular bedtime routine
- Unsuitable sleeping environment
- Shift work
- Nicotine and other stimulants
- Medical conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, heart conditions, Parkinson’s disease and arthritis
- Lifestyle changes – such as a new baby in the family, moving home, noisy neighbors or excessive lighting. (source)
How Can Exercise Help You Sleep Better?
Studies have shown that exercise has a significant effect in improving sleep. Although initial studies suggested that exercise was not effective enough to compare with conventional treatments for insomnia such as medication, more recent research indicates otherwise.
Since exercise has been researched more thoroughly in relation to insomnia, we have discovered some important information which has a significant bearing on how effective exercise can be in improving sleep.
Only Some Types of Exercise Improves Sleep
In a 2008 study for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, researchers examined the effects of several different types of exercise on people diagnosed with long term insomnia.
They found that intense aerobic exercise (running) and weight training were not as effective in improving sleep as moderate intensity aerobic activity. This study found that the strongest effects on insomnia were achieved by people who participated in walking at a moderate pace.
These participants showed a 54% improvement in the time taken to get to sleep, a 36% reduction in night time waking and a 37% increase in total sleep time.
In addition, these people also showed a 15% reduction in anxiety levels, and researchers could confidently state that exercise can be used as a first line treatment for insomnia. (source)
Timing Is Everything
According to some research, people who complete their moderate aerobic exercise in the early morning significantly improved their sleep time by as much as 85%.
In contrast, people who exercised in the evening did improve sleep but to a lesser degree than those who exercised in the morning.
The study concluded that it’s more beneficial to exercise in the early morning in terms of making the maximum difference to sleep, and suggested there may be several physiological factors to explain this.
One possible reason is that exercise causes an increase in brain activity, mental alertness and increased adrenaline.
However, sleep experts maintain that exercise at any time of day helps to improve sleep to some extent, so if the only free time you have to exercise is in the evening, it’s better than no exercise at all.
If your insomnia is severe and causing major problems for you, then your best plan is to exercise for at least forty-five minutes every morning, and maintain this as a consistent long term activity, as it has been shown to have the most beneficial effect.
If you can’t manage forty-five minutes in one go, studies have shown that several short activity sessions are just as effective at improving sleep.
If your time in the morning is at a premium, maybe try to aim for a twenty minute walk first thing in the morning and another at lunchtime, to avoid evening exercise and get your daily quota. At the very least, allow yourself a few hours between the time you exercise and the time you plan to sleep. (source)
Yoga and Sleep
Yoga is a calming form of exercise which involves a combination of different body postures, breathing techniques and meditation. It has been shown to reduce blood pressure, stress, anxiety and improve quality of sleep.
According to research, the traditional theory behind yoga is to help to the body balance physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, and it has been shown to decrease levels of adrenaline.
One study which compared a group of people who regularly practiced yoga every morning for a minimum of one hour with a group of people who didn’t practice yoga, and found that the yoga group had significantly fewer disturbances when sleeping, took much less time to get to sleep, used less sleeping medication, and reported a much better quality of sleep. (source)
Exercise Wisely and Safely
All you need to start walking for health and better sleep is good quality, comfortable footwear and some loose, comfortable clothes – no leotard required!
If time is at a premium for you, incorporate more walking into your daily routine – for example, walking to the shops, rather than driving.
Plan a route that you enjoy, preferably with some nice scenery to make your walk pleasurable. Trying to plan a circular route for your walk, rather than walking to a specific point and back again is preferable for some people, and varying your route is a good idea to make your walk more interesting.
So get to it… put on your walking shoes for some better shut eye.