While logic dictates that regular exercise can boost sleep, a small new study finds that for people suffering from sleep disturbances or insomnia, the answer may not be so simple.
Research from Northwestern University in the U.S. finds that for insomniacs, sleep may have more of an impact on exercise than exercise has on sleep, at least initially.
For the research, the scientists first looked at a 2010 study from the same university involving 17 adults with insomnia. All of the subjects, mostly female, were in their 60s and sedentary. After 16 weeks of physical activity training, subjects reported improved sleep. But the scientists wanted to know more, such as did exercise have an immediate effect on the subjects' sleep?
In the new study, published last week, head researcher Dr. Kelly Glazer Baron and her team recruited 11 female insomniacs to undergo a 16-week program of 30-minute workouts three to four times a week, while keeping sleep diaries.
In their daily logs, the subjects rarely reported sleeping better after they had worked out during the day, and they exercised for shorter amounts of time on the day after a poor night's sleep. Plus after two months, the subjects reported no improved sleep after the exercise program, but after four months, they started showing improvements, as in the original study.
While prior research has shown that for most people, exercising can improve sleep, for insomniacs the relationship may be a bit more convoluted, the new evidence suggests. The rationale? Head researcher Baron told the New York Times that people with insomnia tend to be "neurologically different" and have a "hyper-arousal of the stress system." Breaking a sweat in the gym one day isn't likely to override the system, she said, and could even exacerbate it.
Still, if you struggle with insomnia and currently don't exercise, Baron said that it's advisable to start -- but don't expect miracles. The process could take months, which can be frustrating for someone suffering from sleep deprivation.
"If you have insomnia you won't exercise yourself into sleep right away," she said in a press release. "It's a long-term relationship. You have to keep at it and not get discouraged."
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