We’ve all felt sluggish, lethargic and tired after a bad night’s sleep and we’ve all experienced the benefits of good sleep. Good sleep can improve your pain, your metabolism, your mental health and your immunity. But what happens if you’re stuck in a cycle of poor sleep? What if you seem to do all the right things but still wake up feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck? Exercise can be a great tool to help you improve your sleep.
ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM POOR SLEEP?
Poor sleep can be because of a whole range of reasons such as Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA), shift work, parenting young children, mental health and sleep disorders such as insomnia. The effects of poor sleep include weight gain, increased risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety. On top of this, when you’re tired, you don’t make the best decisions regarding your health and diet. Plus, your coordination and reaction times can be impaired leading to increased risk of injury.
Most adults understand that getting a solid 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night is one of the big 3 pillars of good health with the other 2 being diet and exercise. In fact, sleep is so important that The Sleep Health Foundation has started a sleep awareness week to highlight the importance of sleep in our lives. Their website has some great resources and fact sheetsif you’re keen to learn more about sleep and a range of associated conditions. Among their recommendations is that you exercise to help your sleep patterns.
SO HOW DOES EXERCISE HELP SLEEP?
Exercise and sleep complement each other super well. If you get good refreshing sleep then you are more likely to feel like exercising. And if you exercise, you’re more likely to sleep well! Neat hey! Exercise works to help us drop off to sleep, sleep for longer and sleep more soundly. It also helps to manage other factors that can lead to poor sleep such as mental health and weight gain which is associated with Obstructive Sleep Apnoea and some other sleep disorders.
Exercising outdoors can help our body’s sleep rhythms through exposure to natural light, which our brains use to decide whether to secrete ‘sleepy’ or ‘wakey’ chemicals. Exercise also leads to an increase in body temperature and a subsequent drop which can induce drowsiness and help us nod off if timed properly.
HOW MUCH AND WHEN SHOULD I EXERCISE?
Getting 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous exercise has been shown to improve your sleep quality whilst helping you to meet the exercise guidelines for the other fantastic benefits of exercise. 150 minutes can be broken down into 5 x 30-minute workouts over the week or any other combination you can think of. Even 10-minute bouts can have massive benefits to your overall health and sleep.
A great way to gauge what moderate-vigorous intensity feels like is the talk test. If you can talk, but not sing then you’re probably around the moderate mark. If you’re choosing your words very carefully and shortening sentences to get around the huff and puff, then you’re probably at the vigorous intensity level.
So when should you go for this wonderful sleep-inducing jog, swim, or gym session? Exercise can be a stimulating activity so right before bed isn’t the best idea. Typically, a morning or afternoon workout will hit the spot! Joining an aerobics class after the kids are at school or hitting the gym on your way to work will help with a longer, deeper sleep at night. Exercise in the afternoon will give you that rise and fall in body temperature, which should help you to be counting those sheep as soon as your head hits the pillow.
WHAT IF MY ANXIETY OR DEPRESSION AFFECTS MY SLEEP?
Whilst anxiety and depression don’t always affect sleep, it’s common for people with anxiety or depression to lay awake at night and find it difficult to get that much needed shuteye. Some gentle stretching or Yoga in the evening could be a great way to help get your body ready for sleep. If you’ve got anxiety and spend all night worrying, then assigning some ‘worrying time’ earlier in the day and pairing that up with exercise can be a great way to calm your thoughts during the night. Using exercise throughout the day to help your depression can be a great way to invest in getting a good night’s sleep. Check out these great blogs by Accredited Exercise Physiologist Jacinta Brinsley on exercise for depression and anxiety. The Sleep Health Foundation also has some great tips for getting some sleep whilst dealing with depression or anxiety.
WHAT IF I’VE GOT OBSTRUCTIVE SLEEP APNOEA?
The struggle with OSA usually isn’t in falling to sleep but in waking feeling rested. Repeated closures of your airways through ‘floppy’ throat muscles leads to repeated disruptions to your sleep patterns throughout the night. These airway obstructions happen in your upper airway (or pharynx) and can last for up to 10 seconds. As soon as your brain senses the drop in oxygen levels, you wake up but by then the damage is done. You rise in the morning feeling like you need to head back to bed. Treatments for OSA include Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) devices, oral appliances, surgical options, targeted nerve stimulation, throat muscle training (myofunctional therapy) and weight reduction. Exercise can be a useful tool for weight loss and specialised exercises can help retrain throat muscles.
But interestingly, a large study involving 155,448 people found that exercise reduced the risk of developing OSA independent of your body mass index or other known risk factors. So, if you want to wake feeling more rested, get out there and move! If you’re not sure where to start or have other concerns, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist can help.
Aerobic exercise (the huff and puff kind) has been found to reduce the number of disruptions to your sleep even with no weight loss. People who move more were less likely to develop OSA and had increased quality of life, sleep quality and reduced daytime sleepiness.