Sleep and Exercise

There is one activity, accessible to most Americans at little risk and (if you wish) little cost, that we could all adopt to live better and longer.  I suspect you’ve already guessed this activity: exercise. 

For a brief and entertaining explanation of the broad benefits of exercise, visit this Obesity Panacea January entry.  And guess what?  Exercise treats sleep disorders as well. 

A 2010 study randomized patients with difficulty sleeping to exercise and non-exercise groups.  The exercise group reported higher quality, longer sleep along with less depression and less daytime sleepiness.   Also, exercise leads to weight loss, which as I describe in my blog entry on weight and sleep, can reduce upper airway collapse during sleep (obstructive sleep apnea).    

So when patients come to me with sleep disorders, I end up recommending exercise (or more exercise) almost all folks who do not have clear medical contra-indications.  I classify objections into 3 categories:  “I’m too busy,” “I’m too tired,” and “I have pain that makes it impossible for me to exercise.”  Regarding objection one, how is it that we Americans average 5 hours of television per day and can’t find one half hour four times per week to exercise?  At the very least, use a treadmill while you watch American Idol.

Lack of energy (“I’m too tired”) does impair exercise initiation.  But once you start, either a regimen or a workout, you are unlikely to stop because of lack of energy.  You just need to move beyond the initial struggle.  If you can discipline yourself to learn algebra, you can discipline yourself to do some form of exercise.

The “medical problems” limitation is tricky and should be addressed with one’s primary physician.  While those with arthritis should avoid aggravating joint pain, there is good evidence that exercise benefits arthritis, and only the most limited patients cannot swim or perform water aerobics.   If you can walk into my office or wait in line at Starbucks, and you don’t have heart, lung, or neurological disease, you can also walk around the block.

More exercise leads to better sleep which may lead to more effective exercise.  Start the virtuous circle!