Sweat Yourself to Sleep

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

30 minutes of exercise may help you beat insomnia.

By Miriam Nelson
WebMD Feature

If you have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or are waking up often during the night, you are not alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 70 million Americans experience insomnia at some point in their lives. And whether you suffer from transient or chronic insomnia, you know how frustrating it can be to struggle to fall asleep at night and feel exhausted in the morning.

Insomnia Defined

In medical circles, insomnia is considered a symptom rather than a disease. Various illnesses can cause insomnia -- as can caffeine, alcohol, smoking, depression, anxiety, stress, and arthritic pain. If you experience insomnia for a short period of time -- from two days to two weeks -- the problem is considered transient. But the NIH says that for 60% of insomnia sufferers the problem persists for three weeks or more, and in this case it's known as chronic insomnia.

Sleep Quality and Quantity

Quality sleep is essential for physical and emotional health. During childhood, sleep plays a key role in learning, memory, emotional well-being, immune function, and growth. Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can cause fatigue, loss of energy, and memory problems. In adults, fatigue is frequently linked to car accidents and industrial accidents.

Medication can help treat insomnia temporarily, but the drugs can be addictive, requiring increasingly high doses the longer they are taken. Melatonin is often recommended as a natural sleep remedy. While it hasn't been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it's widely considered safe and effective in alleviating transient insomnia.

But research also suggests that exercise may be even more beneficial than drugs, since it has no negative side effects.

Scientific Support for Exercise

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January 1997 examined the impact of moderate exercise on sleep quality in older adults with moderate sleep-related complaints. During the study, 43 healthy men and women between the ages of 50 and 76 were split into two groups. One group exercised moderately for 16 weeks; the other group made no changes to their lifestyles. Exercise consisted of 30- to 40-minute aerobics classes four times a week. By the end of 16 weeks, the exercisers reported more improvement in their sleep quality than the control group.

In a study conducted at Tufts University -- published in 1997 in the journal Sleep -- 32 elderly men and women, described as slightly to moderately depressed, participated in either a 10-week strength-training program or a control group. The exercise group completed three strength-training sessions each week. At the end of the study, the strength-training group reported significant improvement over the control group in both quality of sleep and quality of life.

Admittedly, research in this area is limited. Most studies so far have focused on the elderly, who are most likely to suffer from insomnia, and it's impossible to be certain the results will also apply to other age groups. Still, a lot of anecdotal evidence supports the idea that one of the benefits of regular exercise is better sleep.

Insomnia-Preventing Exercises

It's important to consult your physician to determine the underlying cause of your insomnia and discuss possible remedies. If you are interested in starting an exercise program, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Include aerobic, strengthening, and stretching components in your workout plan.
  • Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise each day.
  • Do strengthening exercises two to three non-consecutive days of the week.
  • Do stretching exercises every day for 15 to 30 minutes after a warmup.
  • If you exercise later in the day, wait at least an hour before lying down or going to bed. Going to bed too soon after exercising could exacerbate insomnia.

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