By Alice Fabbre, Special to the Tribune
September 11, 2013
While exercise is often recommended to help with insomnia, a recent study by Northwestern University shows that the impact of hitting the gym might take some time to kick in when it comes to better sleep. We talked to study author Dr. Kelly Glazer Baron, a clinical psychologist and director of the behavioral sleep program at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, about the connection between a good night's sleep and exercise. Here's an edited transcript on our interview.
Q: Your study found that exercise won't help someone having trouble falling asleep get a better night's sleep that same night. Why not?
A: The results of the study showed that there wasn't a relationship between someone who exercised during the day and how well they sleep that night. But the better they slept that night the more minutes of exercise they had the next day.
Q: Does it make a difference in the long run?
A: The results showed over the course of 16 weeks there was a very large effect on sleep and exercise. But the relationship wasn't present day to day. The study showed the number of sleep minutes increased (an average of 45 minutes in the long run). Their mood also improved and they felt less sleepy during the day.
Q: If exercise won't help immediately, do you really need to exercise to sleep better?
A: The answer is, exercise is beneficial for sleep. The results of this study should be encouraging rather than discouraging because exercise had a large effect on sleep.
When people aren't sleeping they want a quick fix and exercise will not be that quick fix. But ultimately it has so many benefits it's very promising as a treatment for insomnia.
Q: How long does it usually take for that connection between regular exercise and a better night's sleep to kick in for patients having trouble sleeping?
A: In our study we found that it took 16 weeks. We didn't see the effect in 8 weeks. Other studies have shown between 4-8 weeks. It varies between individuals. As a group (in this study) it took 16 weeks although some individuals saw improvement before that.
Q: What natural remedies do you recommend to patients who are waiting for that connection between exercise and a better night's sleep to kick in?
A: I don't think there is a quick fix for sleep. The best thing people can do is to improve sleep habits — reducing alcohol, stress, reducing caffeine after lunch, getting up at the same time every day. The other advice is not to lie in bed trying to get to sleep. Wait to get into bed until sleepy.
Q: Is there an optimal amount of exercise you should get in to help you sleep? Is there an optimal time of day to exercise if the ultimate goal is to improve sleep?
A: Optimal time to exercise has been shown to be between four to eight hours before your bedtime. But if you're not having a sleep problem, (then) for most people I would say the time to exercise is when you can get to exercise. (But if you are having trouble falling asleep) exercising too early in the morning or exercising too late in the evening disrupts sleep.
In this study they exercised between 1 and 5 p.m. We wanted a time that would not reinforce those early awakenings or disrupt their sleep onset.
You don't need excessive amounts of vigorous exercise. They did 30-45 minutes of moderate exercise — walking on a treadmill or riding on a stationary bike. The other side of it is that overexertion and overtraining can cause sleep problems. Exercise may improve sleep at moderate levels in moderate intensity but overdoing it could actually impair your sleep.
Q: Any favorite exercises for people who are hitting the gym in hopes of getting into a regular sleep pattern?
A: In this study they did whatever they wanted and it was mostly treadmill walking. My favorite exercise is the kind that the person is willing and able to do, and for most people that's putting on a pair of shoes and going outside or something that's also convenient for them. If you don't like doing it you're not going to do it.
Q: You note in your study how patients who can't sleep find it harder to exercise. Why?
A: In this study, people who had a worse night's sleep exercised less the next day. We found that sleep depravation affects people's perception of how hard the exercise is. Sleep depravation also affects people's mood and motivation. When you don't sleep well, exercise feels harder. You don't exert more energy, but the perception is that it's more difficult.
Q: Any other tips on how to get a good night's sleep?
A: Maintaining a regular schedule and reducing the stress in your life. If you feel like you are sleeping enough and still are unrefreshed in your sleep, that's the time to go seek evaluation at a certified sleep medicine center.
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