By Benjamin Semmens, Registered Nutritionist (BHSc)
13 Seeds is back again with another edition of Friday Q&A, a digital series where we answer all your health and nutrition-related questions. This week’s question came from Sam who wanted to know “What’s your number one tip for reducing insomnia and getting a better night’s rest?”
If you wake up feeling unrefreshed and tired morning after morning? Chances are you may be experiencing insomnia. Most people assume that insomniacs are people who go for days on end without sleeping, but insomnia is diagnosed as having difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early or experiencing restless sleep multiple times a week.
It’s estimated that up to 15% of adults suffer from insomnia. (1) Many people choose to take sleeping pills to get some shut eye, the problem is that these medications can have many unpleasant side effects and can also be difficult to wean off. Knowing what to do if you experience insomnia can be overwhelming, but there’s one form of treatment right under our noses, and that's good old-fashioned exercise.
We all know the health benefits of exercise, from reducing chronic disease to improving your overall health. But recent research now suggests that exercise can even improve insomnia. A recent study on people who suffer from chronic insomnia who started regular exercise fell asleep 13 minutes faster and stayed asleep 18 minutes longer on average in as little as four weeks. Not to mention that exercise was just as effective as hypnotic drugs used to treat insomnia (2).
What if I told you that you can reap the benefits of exercise on sleep by partaking in fun and exciting forms of movement including dancing and rollerblading?
In this blog we’ll explain how exercise improves sleep and reduces insomnia, what type of exercise is best and the how to do it!
How does exercise help people manage their insomnia?
Resets your body clock
Your sleep/wake cycles are tightly regulated by your circadian rhythm – your internal body clock that regulates many bodily processes from your metabolism, weight, blood sugar and cholesterol. (3) Sometimes our circadian rhythms can become dysregulated through bad diet and lifestyle habits (eg. caffeine, stress, sleep/wake times etc). When your body clock is off it can cause insomnia and poor sleep. Regular exercise can reset your body clock helping you to fall asleep faster! (4)
Cools you down
As it gets closer to bedtime, your core body temperature starts to cool down naturally to prepare your body for sleep. (5) Exercise has a similar effect by also cooling your core temperature once you’ve finished your sweat session. While exercising your body temperature increases, and around 30 – 90 minutes post-exercise, your body starts to actively cool itself down.
Reduces anxiety and depression
Symptoms of anxiety and depression such as excessive worrying thoughts, stress, and hyperarousal can all cause sleeping difficulties. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, chemicals that induce happiness and a sense of euphoria that improves sleep quality. (7) Certain types of exercise such as running also boost serotonin, the relaxing hormone that’s involved in your sleep/wake cycle that can help to regulate your sleep. (8)
Reduces muscle aches and pains
You go through different stages of sleep. In Stage 3, known as your deep sleep stage, your body works to restore itself by healing your muscles and tissues in preparation for your next bout of exercise. Studies have shown that moderate aerobic exercise increases the duration you spend in deep sleep that can help to reduce muscles aches and pains that may be contributing to your insomnia. (9)
What’s the best way to exercise to improve sleep?
While the benefits of any form exercise in theory could help to improve sleep and reduce insomnia, research indicates that moderate intensity aerobic exercise is the best for improving sleep rather than high intensity exercise (10).
Believe it or not, even a single 30-minute exercise session can reduce the time it takes to fall sleep and increases the duration of your sleep. However, to get the best results you should be partaking in regular exercise with studies showing that long-term exercise (around 4 -24 weeks) can reduce insomnia symptoms such as falling asleep faster, sleeping longer, and improving sleep quality prior to commencing exercising (11).
Moderate aerobic exercise for periods of four to six months has also shown to reduce symptoms of depression (12) and improves overall sleep quality. (13) Some examples of moderate intensity exercise include brisk walking, water aerobics, bike riding, dancing, lawn mowing, hiking, and rollerblading! Just about anyone can participate in one of these forms of exercise, so there’s really nothing holding you back from improving your sleep and reducing symptoms of insomnia. Aim for 150 – 300 minutes of exercise a week.
Does is matter what time of day I exercise?
Exercising boosts your mood and releases endorphins, but some experts recommend avoiding exercising 2 hours before bedtime. As you now know, your body temperature starts to drop around 30 – 90 post exercise that could help to improve your sleep, so this may not be necessary. If you do find that exercise is keeping you awake, plan to do it earlier.
You might even find it handy to keep a sleep diary and make notes about when you exercise, type of exercise, and your sleep quality to get a better idea of what improves your sleep. Just keep in mind that there may be other factors affecting your sleep such as caffeine, alcohol, stress, and meal timing.
Exercise is an excellent tool that can use to help improve your sleep and reduce annoying insomnia symptoms, meaning that you don’t need to rely on nasty sleep medications. You don’t need to run a marathon, instead you can reap the benefits of exercise even while dancing and cleaning the house, so long as you get your heart rate up high enough.
Congratulations to Sam who won a $20 gift voucher just for asking Ben a question! If you have any other questions or need some extra support with your health, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at email@example.com and subscribe to our blog for more updates.
This article does not constitute medical advice and does not take into consideration your personal circumstances. Please see your medical professional before implementing the above.