By David S. Sobel, M.D.
Findings from a recent Stanford University Medical School study may come as no surprise: older and middle-age people reported sleeping better when they added regular exercise to their routine. After 16 weeks in a moderate intensity exercise program, subjects were able to fall asleep about 15 minutes earlier and sleep about 45 minutes longer at night.
Participants exercised at least four times a week. Twice a week they participated in an organized aerobics class, which included 30 minutes of endurance training. The other two times they exercised on their own, doing 40 minutes of brisk walking or stationary bike riding.
To assess impact on sleep, researchers looked at factors such as how long it takes to fall asleep, total hours of sleep per night, how often one wakes up, how one feels when waking up, and daytime function.
The link between aerobic exercise and sleep may seem obvious, but until this study, there has been very little controlled research to support this "conventional wisdom." Though they are only 20% of the population, older Americans receive almost half the medications prescribed to aid sleep.
The potential side effects of these drugs-confusion, falls, extended drowsiness, agitation, and interactions with other medications-can be especially problematic for this age group. Until this study, there have been very few attempts to identify effective non-drug approaches to treating mild sleep disorders.
The study also provides further evidence of the interactions of mind and body. In this case improving physical health shows a positive impact on the mind.
RX: Self-Care Tips
Try exercise to help your sleep. Here are some tips.
A drop in body temperature aids sound sleep. So time your exercise five to six hours before bedtime.
Make your exercise vigorous enough to make you sweat a little. Previous studies have shown that non-aerobic stretching and concentration exercises alone did not impart sleep. Stick with it! Participants in this study did not report improved sleep until they had been exercising for 16 weeks.