by Kate Maliha, MA (HKin)
Exercise: A Medication-Free Way to Promote Better Sleep
About half of adults aged 65 and older report having some sort of sleep problem, and according to 60 Second Sleep Ease authors Drs. Shawn Currie and Keith Wilson, reasons include chronic pain, age-related changes to the sleep/wake cycle, and bad sleep habits such as watching TV before bed. The most common sleep disorder is chronic insomnia, characterized by trouble falling asleep, waking too early in the morning, or waking in the night.
Stress or anxiety and disruptions to the body’s internal clock are at the root of chronic insomnia, and so certain forms of exercise can provide a natural way to getting a good night’s rest. Studies show that exercising regularly can help improve sleep patterns, although changes may take four weeks or longer. In fact, adults with insomnia fell asleep more quickly, slept longer, and had better sleep quality than before they began exercising. Some types of exercise can encourage a proper sleep/wake schedule, as well as help with stress control and mindfulness. Not all exercise positively impacts sleep, though, so it’s important to understand the type and timing of exercise if you’re using it to improve sleep patterns.
Timing: Because exercise acts as a natural stimulant (ideal in the morning), early exercise can encourage a proper sleep/wake cycle. Particularly if you’re tired from not sleeping well at night, a bit of walking or other light exercise can help your body adjust its rhythm. Light afternoon activity such as stretching and deep breathing may help by triggering an increase in body temperature; the post-exercise drop in temperature may induce evening sleep. Very intense exercise can be overly stimulating though, so if you exercise strenuously later in the day you may have more trouble falling asleep at night.
Environment: Many of us don’t get enough sunlight, creating light deficiency in our bodies, which can affect our biological clock. In addition, we’re often exposed to too much artificial light in the evenings via computers and TV screens, interrupting the natural sleep/wake rhythm. Outdoor light is much more intense than indoor light, and thus exercising outdoors first thing in the morning can provide a powerful stimulus to the brain to be awake and alert at the right time of day. According to Dr. Greg Wells, Professor of Kinesiology, University of Toronto, walking in nature improves energy and decreases feelings of tension and tiredness much more than indoor activity of the same intensity. He notes that being exposed to plants decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, decreases resting heart rate, and also decreases blood pressure.
Type: Stress and anxiety are strongly linked to sleep problems. Mindful exercises can be the most beneficial for proper sleep since they help with stress control and anxiety reduction. In addition, gentle, mindful types of exercise can help with pain management, providing help for those who wake in the night because of pain. Specific gentle and mindful activities include gentle yoga, Pilates, tai chi, and some forms of water exercise, as well as walking.
Since insomnia is commonly linked with elevated arousal, anxiety, and depression, exercise can have strongly positive effects in reducing these symptoms. In addition, exercise may help adjust and influence circadian rhythms (body clock), contributing to your overall healthy sleep plan.
References available upon request.