Sept. 17, 2010 -- Running to the medicine cabinet or to doctors for sleeping pills may be one way to battle chronic insomnia, but aerobic exercise might be the best prescription, new research indicates.
Scientists at Northwestern University say sleep problems affect millions of adults, who could likely improve their quality of sleep, vitality, and mood with regular aerobic exercise.
The researchers say the study is the first to examine the effect of aerobic exercise on insomnia in middle-aged and older adults. About 50% of people middle-aged and older complain of symptoms of chronic insomnia.
The Study Design
Investigators studied 23 sedentary adults, mostly women aged 55 years and older, who had a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep and also reported impaired daytime functioning.
The participants were randomly placed in one of two groups.
One group exercised for two 20-minute sessions four times a week and the other did a 30-40 minute workout four times a week. This went on in both groups for 16 weeks, with participants exercising to 75% of their maximum heart rate on at least two activities, such as riding a stationary bicycle, walking, or exercising on a treadmill.
In a control group, participants didn’t exert themselves physically but only mentally, taking part in recreational or educational activities, such as attending a cooking class or listening to a museum lecture. This group met for about 45 minutes, three to five times a weeks, also for 16 weeks.
Exercise Helps Sleep Quality
Researchers say the participants who exercised reported that their sleep quality improved, raising their diagnosis from poor to good sleeper. They also reported fewer depressive symptoms, more vitality, and less sleepiness in the daytime.
Lead author Kathryn Reid, PhD, of the Department of Neurobiology and Physiology at Northwestern University, says drug-free treatment is best for insomnia because it eliminates the potential of sleep medications interacting with other drugs a person might be taking.
Sleep Equals More Pep
“Better sleep gave them pep, that magical ingredient that makes you want to get up and get out into the world to do things,” Reid says in a news release.
Phyllis Zee, MD, senior author and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Medicine, says the study is important because it is relevant to “a huge proportion of the population.”
She says insomnia increases with age. Around mid-life, sleep begins to change dramatically, she says.
“It is essential that we identify behavioral ways to improve sleep,” Zee says. “Now we have promising results showing aerobic exercise is a simple strategy to help people sleep better and feel more vigorous.”
Like nutrition and exercise, sleep is an essential ingredient of a healthy lifestyle, says Zee, also a professor of neurology, neurobiology, and physiology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Sleep Helps Mental Health, Too
“By improving a person’s sleep, you can improve their physical and mental health,” she says. “Sleep is a barometer of health, like someone’s temperature. If a person says he or she isn’t sleeping well, we know they are more likely to be in poor health, with problems managing their hypertension or diabetes.”
The exercise and sedentary groups were told that good sleep hygiene can be improved by sleeping in a cool, dark, and quiet room; going to bed at the same time every night; and not staying in bed too long if you can’t fall asleep.
“The increase in self-reported sleep duration by 1.25 hours in the exercise plus sleep hygiene education group is higher than what has been reported for other non-pharmacological interventions for insomnia,” the authors write.
The study is published in the October issue of the journal Sleep Medicine.