Sleep apnea and exercise: The sleep/health connection

Sleep apnea and exercise are connected in a number of ways. Hitting the gym or going for a run can generally lead to a better night’s sleep, and lack of exercise can cause weight gain that may lead to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

In addition to these well-known factors, a new poll by the National Sleep Foundation reveals some surprises that may change the way we think about the relationship between sleep apnea and exercise.

Regular exercise = better sleep

It’s not exactly a secret that getting regular exercise helps you sleep better. It’s a simple formula, but it’s one that’s hard to argue with – not only because it helps promote healthy sleep, but because of the obvious health benefits of exercising regularly.

A recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation1 attempted to find out just how significant the connection between sleep apnea and exercise really is. The poll found that, among people who claim to exercise, 67 percent report that they sleep well, claiming that they “rarely or never” experienced sleep-loss symptoms like insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, or waking up too early.

Compare those figures to the number of people who don’t exercise regularly and claim they still sleep well – just 39 percent of respondents. Half of those non-exercisers say they frequently wake up during the night, and 24 percent say they have trouble falling asleep.

The poll data found “strong relationships between good sleep and exercise,” said Max Hirshkowitz, PhD, the poll’s task force chair, who points out that it’s not difficult for non-exercisers to enjoy the sleep benefits of regular exercise.

“If you are inactive, adding a 10 minute walk every day could improve your likelihood of a good night’s sleep … Making this small change and gradually working your way up to more intense activities like running or swimming could help you sleep better.”

Sleep apnea and exercise: The weight loss factor

Aside from helping you get a better night’s sleep, exercise also helps alleviate the risk of sleep apnea by helping you control your weight.

“Obesity is the most important risk factor for OSA,” the JAMA Internal Medicine journal reported in a recent study.2 “Weight reduction has been shown to improve OSA or even cure it.”

Reuters elaborates on this report, describing weight gain as the typical factor elevating mild sleep apnea to severe sleep apnea.3 “With these results, we can say that if we change our lifestyle … we really can stop the progression of sleep apnea,” study leader Dr. Henri Tuomilehto is quoted. “It usually takes at least a few years to progress from mild disease to the more severe disease, and mostly it’s due to weight gain.”

New angles to the sleep apnea/exercise dynamic

If none of this seems like groundbreaking news so far, the National Sleep Foundation poll does have a few surprises. For example: On top of exercise, simply taking the time to stand and stretch more during the day could help you catch a better night’s sleep. People who spend less than eight hours of their day sitting are “significantly more likely” to describe their sleep quality as “very good” than people who sit for longer than eight hours per day.

“This poll is the first to show that simply spending too much time sitting might negatively affect our sleep quality,” said poll task force member Professor Marco Tulio de Mello.

An even more surprising perspective on sleep apnea and exercise: Based on this poll, the National Sleep Foundation is revising its opinion on one of the more established sleep hygiene tips, deciding that exercise any time of day will help achieve better sleep. Previously, experts discouraged exercise immediately before bedtime.

“Exercise is beneficial to sleep. It’s time to revise global recommendations for improving sleep and put exercise – any time – at the top of our list for healthy sleep habits,” a poll task force member said in the report.

(The report does note that those with “chronic insomnia should continue to restrict late evening and night exercise, if this is part of their treatment regimen.”)

This blog post contains general information about medical conditions and potential treatments. It is not medical advice. If you have any medical questions, please consult your doctor.

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