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Exercise is 'no quick fix for insomnia'

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Farah Ahmed
older couple exercising

15th August 2013 - Getting plenty of exercise is often recommended as a cure for insomnia, but a small study finds that people who sleep badly often find it harder to get active the next day.

Aerobic exercise has been tested in a number of studies as a way of helping people who find it hard to get to sleep or have difficulties staying asleep, but this new research suggests that working up a sweat in the gym for 45 minutes is unlikely to be a miracle solution to their problems.

"If you have insomnia you won't exercise yourself into sleep right away," says lead author Kelly Glazer Baron, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University in Chicago. She continues in a statement: "It's a long-term relationship. You have to keep at it and not get discouraged."

The authors say that this is the first long-term study to show that aerobic exercise during the day does not result in improved sleep that same night when people have existing sleep problems. They say that most studies on the daily effects of exercise and sleep have been done with healthy sleepers.

16 week exercise programme

Data for this study, which is published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, was drawn from a previously published larger study which had shown that a 16 week exercise regime combined with improved sleep habits was a better cure for insomnia than a healthier approach to sleeping on its own.

In the new study, the researchers concentrated on 11 older women with an average age of 61 who had taken part in this earlier research. All of the women had experienced sleep problems for at least 3 months and had taken part in the 16 week exercise regime.

Sleep diaries

Previously the women had not taken any exercise, but they built up to 30 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week. They were asked to assess their quality of sleep at the start of the study and then again at the end of the exercise regime.

After 16 weeks, the women were, on average, sleeping an extra 46 minutes a night - 6 hours and 40 minutes, up from 5 hours and 54 minutes.

However, the researchers did not find any quick fixes - either in longer or better sleep - on the nights that the women worked out. In fact women who had slept badly tended to find it harder to exercise the following day. They write that "disrupted sleep may lead to decreased desire to exercise and increased pain, which decreases next day exercise".

Staying active

The authors say the key message is that people with sleep disturbances have to be persistent with exercise. "People have to realise that even if they don't want to exercise, that's the time they need to dig in their heels and get themselves out there," says Kelly Glazer Baron.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists recommends getting some physical exercise to help fight insomnia. Some regular swimming and walking, particularly in the late afternoon or early afternoon may be most beneficial. It recommends also trying these self-help tips:

  • Have a comfortable bedroom - not too hot, not too cold, not too noisy
  • Have a mattress that supports you properly
  • Take some time to relax before going to bed
  • Don't take alcohol, slimming tablets, or street drugs like Ecstasy, cocaine and amphetamines
  • Try writing any worries down before going to bed and then tell yourself to deal with them tomorrow
  • Get up if you can't sleep, and do something you find relaxing. Read, watch television or listen to quiet music. After a while you should feel tired enough to go to get back to sleep
  • If your sleep routine has been disrupted by shift work, jet lag, or having a small baby, try to wake up quite early, at the same time every morning, whatever time you fell asleep the night before. Make sure that you don't go to bed again before about 10 pm that night. After a few nights you should start to fall asleep naturally at the right time.
Reviewed on August 15, 2013

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