Exercise Improves Sleep and Nighttime Breathing Troubles

Studies: Physically Active People Sleep Longer and More Deeply and Have Less Sleep Apnea

From the WebMD Archives

June 14, 2011 (Minneapolis) -- Three new studies show that people who are more physically active sleep longer and more deeply than those who are sedentary.

For adults with sleep apnea, a condition that stresses the heart and repeatedly interrupts sleep when breathing briefly slows or stops, an exercise program that combined brisk walking and weight training cut the severity of their disorder by 25% -- as much as some kinds of surgery.

“The most compelling point of the research was that this 25% reduction was achieved without any reduction in body weight,” says study researcher Christopher Kline, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Sleep Medicine.

Being overweight is a well-known risk factor for sleep apnea, and previous studies have shown that losing weight may improve the condition.

“For a 25% reduction due to weight loss, you actually need to lose about 10% of your body weight,” Kline says.

For his study participants, who weighed, on average, more than 220 pounds, “They’d have to lose 22 pounds for them to achieve the same benefit that we achieved just through exercise.”

A separate analysis on the same study volunteers found that exercise also improved daytime sleepiness, decreased fatigue, and sharpened thinking compared to a program of light stretching.

“I think studies like this one are very important, because we need as many options for treating sleep apnea as we can get,” says Virend Somers, MD, PhD, a cardiologist and sleep apnea specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who was not involved in the research.

Studies have shown that sleep apnea increases blood pressure. Sleep apnea has also been linked to higher risks for a host of cardiovascular problems, including strokes, heart attacks, heart failure, and fluttering heartbeats called arrhythmias.

“I think it’s a very good strategy because along with treating the sleep apnea, exercise, we know, has a breadth of cardiovascular benefits in terms of mitigating established risk factors. This is particularly important in this population,” Somers says.

Still, Somers notes, this is one of the earliest studies to test this approach. And although the risk to patients who want to copy this exercise program is low, he says more studies are needed to see how durable the improvements may be and whether patients could see even more benefit if they combined exercise with weight loss.

Somers and the study researchers say that because apnea can have such serious health consequences, it would be a mistake for people to think, based on this study, that exercise alone could substitute for medical therapies like continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machines, which completely eliminate apnea.

But it’s a step in the right direction, he says.