Running to Sleep
As much as we might hope, enjoying another pint of Ben & Jerry’s sprawled out on the couch won’t get us the washboard abs we so desire. And it’s unlikely to help us sleep better either. What might help bring about both? The very opposite: Regular exercise.
Study after study have shown that for those without persistent sleep problems, even moderate exercise can help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. It can increase the length of sleep we get. It can improve the quality of sleep we get. But how?
There are a couple of reasons. Exercising heats up your body, so the ensuing drop in temperature following a work out may ease us into slumber. It can decrease anxiety and depression, two things likely to keep us up at night. And, perhaps most simply, working out is hard! It makes us tired and exerts our energy in a healthy way.
One study showed people sleep notably better and feel more alert during the day if they get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week. It positively influenced productivity at work and attention in a classroom setting the following day.
Another study looked at 400-plus teenagers, about half of which were athletes who averaged 17.7 hours/exercise weekly, and the other half averaging 4.7 hours/exercise weekly. Unsurprisingly, research found that the athletes sleep better, fell asleep faster, woke up less at night, were more productive and less depressed/anxious than the non-athletes.
And yet another study (there are quite a few of these, aren’t there?) determined that not only the amount but the type of exercise can affect your sleep. More purposeful activities, from running to yoga to sports to even gardening, will positively influence sleep more than others. That implies there is a cumulative effect: the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.
Don’t necessarily expect immediate results, however. Like most good habits, it can take time to see the impact regular exercise can have on your sleep health. Some studies have shown that those beginning to exercise regularly won’t see any effect on their sleep until after several months of ingraining the habit. In some cases, a single intense workout could even intensify sleep problems in those already struggling with insomnia, adding yet another stressor to keep them up at night. With time and dedication, however, meaningful results were met and sleep improved.
With so many tips, pills, and solutions out there to sleep more soundly, it’s refreshing and a relief to learn it can be as simple as strapping on tennis shoes and hitting the pavement. “Increasingly, the scientific evidence is encouraging as regular physical activity may serve as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to improve sleep,” said Brad Cardinal, a professor of exercise science at Oregon State University.
So next time someone asks you what you’re running from, you can tell them, “Sleep Outfitters says I’m running TOWARD better sleep!” And then leave them in your dust.