Sleep loss can sometimes seem like an immutable feature of the human condition, with one in three people suffering from it in the UK. Although the condition may seem impossible to address, evidence shows that making even modest changes to your lifestyle can restore your sleep-cycle back its normal rhythm. One way to improve your overall quality of sleep is to engage in regular exercise.
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As the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) explains, in addition to physical improving sleep quality and duration, it also reduces stress and tires you out, factors known to inhibit sleep.
Additionally, early morning and afternoon exercise may also help reset the sleep wake cycle by raising body temperature slightly, then allowing it to drop and trigger sleepiness a few hours later, notes the health body.
“It can be especially helpful if you are able to exercise outdoors and let your body absorb natural sunlight during the daytime hours,” it adds.
What type of exercise is most conducive to a good night’s sleep?
According to a study published in Sleep Medicine, regular aerobic exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on sleep loss.
Aerobic exercise is any activity that gets your heart rate up, such as running, brisk walking, cycling, and swimming.
The study, examining the effect of aerobic exercise on middle-aged and older adults with a diagnosis of insomnia, reported dramatic improvements patients’ reported quality of sleep, including sleep duration, compared to any other non-pharmacological intervention.
Commenting on the findings, Phyllis Zee, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Medicine and senior author, said: “Around middle age, sleep begins to change dramatically. It is essential that we identify behavioural ways to improve sleep.
“Now we have promising results showing aerobic exercise is a simple strategy to help people sleep better and feel more vigorous.”
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To arrive at this conclusion, study researchers monitored 23 sedentary adults, primarily women, 55 and older who had difficulty falling sleep and/or staying asleep and impaired daytime functioning.
After a conditioning period, the aerobic physical activity group exercised for two 20-minute sessions four times per week or one 30-to-40-minute session four times per week, both for 16 weeks.
Participants worked at 75 percent of their maximum heart rate on at least two activities including walking or using a stationary bicycle or treadmill.
Participants in the non-physical activity group participated in recreational or educational activities, such as a cooking class or a museum lecture, which met for about 45 minutes three to five times per week for 16 weeks.
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After doing a comparative analysis of the data, exercise improved the participants’ self-reported sleep quality, elevating them from a diagnosis of poor sleeper to good sleeper. They also reported fewer depressive symptoms, more vitality and less daytime sleepiness.
When should I exercise in the day to reap the results?
As the NSF points out, it is commonly held that working out vigorously too close to bedtime over-stimulates the body, which negatively impacts the body’s ability to unwind.
“But it turns out that exercising at night doesn’t interfere with everyone’s sleep—it depends on the individual,” says the health body.
If you find that physical activity in the evening does disrupt your sleep-cycle, the health site recommends doing it earlier in the day.
Other simple self-help tips
According to the NHS, keeping regular sleeping hours can also encourage sleep by programming the brain and internal body clock to get used to a set routine.
The health body explains: “Most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep every night. By working out what time you need to wake up, you can set a regular bedtime schedule.”
It is also important to try and wake up at the same time every day.
As the NHS notes, it may seem like a good idea to try to catch up on sleep after a bad night, but doing so on a regular basis can also disrupt your sleep routine.
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