Want Better Sleep? Try Working Out

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Michael E. Yurcheshen

Nearly 70 million Americans are living with a sleep disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re one of them, consider your activity level.

“There are so many benefits to physical activity,” said Heather Henderson, psychiatric nurse practitioner in private practice in Syracuse. “Physical activity can improve physical and mental health and reduce stress, which in turn can help with sleep. Physical activity also makes it necessary for the body to repair itself, leading to better quality sleep.”

Henderson’s specialties include insomnia and disrupted sleep.

“People who exercise tend to be better sleepers,” said Michael Yurcheshen, physician, associate professor in the department of neurology, sleep medicine at University of Rochester Medical Center. “Some of this may have to do with the exercise itself; some of it may be that they’re disciplined about sleep. It takes a fair amount of motivation. You have to be on point and dedicated to it. Sleep habits are a matter of consistency and commitment.”

It logically follows that someone disciplined to maintain good exercise habits also maintains good sleep habits.

Exercising regularly helps mitigate the effects of stress, which Yurcheshen said can make a big difference in falling asleep and staying asleep. Exercise helps regulate stress hormones, the kind that may interfere with sleeping well.

Activity can also affect core body temperature. Although sleep experts recommend a cool environment to promote good sleep, exercise can affect body cooling as well, if timed right.

“When you exercise, your core body temperature goes up but within an hour, that core cools,” Yurcheshen explained. “That’s one of the signals or cues your body uses to initiate rest. When evening comes, your core body temperature drops by a degree or two regardless of exercise. We can use exercise as a specific therapy, particularly ‘night owls’ who find it difficult to fall asleep. Exercising in the evening, though not too late, can play into this. You can get a similar effect with a warm bath.”

If a morning workout fits your day better, just a 30-minute walk in the early evening can provide the same benefit to sleep as timing your workout to benefit sleep.

“A lot of people find exercise helps them stay alert during the day, so there’s less napping during the day,” Yurcheshen said. “They’re less sleepy when they go to bed.”

Light exercise such as yoga and stretching may be better for people whose only chance to exercise is clos-er to bedtime. The meditative aspects of yoga can provide mental and emotional calm. Stretching can help improve comfort and relaxation once in bed.

Anyone who experiences an ongoing lack of restful sleep should seek help from a healthcare provider to rule out any other health issues and to obtain advice on what to do to improve sleep. The provider can also recommend a sleep specialist if needed. Before beginning a new exercise regimen, ask a healthcare provider what is right for you.