Not Sleeping Well? Start Working Out


Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan hammers home the message: Dogs get restless when they have too much energy. So it makes sense that insomnia in humans could subside when exercise is introduced into the equation. Researchers at Northwestern University put the theory to the test.

“We predicted that exercise would improve sleep quality in insomnia [patients] because some of our earlier studies showed that it can improve sleep quality in older adults without insomnia,” says Dr. Phyllis Zee, the study’s lead researcher and professor of neurology, neurobiology and physiology.

The set-up: The study included 23 sedentary adults 55 and older who had difficulty falling asleep, and/or staying asleep and reported impaired daytime functioning. The subjects were put through a conditioning period and then broken into two groups of physical activity versus non-physical activity. The aerobic group exercised for two 20-minute sessions four times a week or one 30-to-40-minute session four times a week, both for 16 weeks. Participants worked at 75 percent of their maximum heart rate on at least two activities such as walking, using a stationary bicycle or running on a treadmill. The non-physical group was put through recreational activities including a cooking class or museum lecture, which met for about 45 minutes three to five times per week for 16 weeks.

Both groups were armed with information about good sleep hygiene (going to bed the same time every night, not staying in bed too long, if you can’t fall asleep, etc.) and how to create an appropriate sleep environment (a cool, dark and quiet room).

The results: The physically active group self-reported an improved sleep quality: Their scores on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index dropped an average of 4.8 points, (a higher score indicates worse sleep) officially changing their sleep category from “poor sleeper” to “good sleeper.” They also reported fewer symptoms of depression, more vitality and less daytime sleepiness.

It is important to note that this study involved older adults. Will it work on men your age with insomnia? “Yes, I think these results will likely apply to younger adults,” says Zee. “There is data in younger adults that exercise can improve sleep quality. However, the effects of exercise on young insomnia patients has not been studied.”


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