I’ve never really had much of a problem falling asleep. In my youth, any surface or body position was fair game for getting in some Zs. And today isn’t much different, except that my muscles will pay for my time not spent on a decent mattress the next day. In fact, the only time I’ve ever really had much difficulty was when I lived on the ground floor of a large fraternity house in my mid-20s, but I solved that problem with excessive alcohol consumption.
Needless to say, excessive boozing is not a doctor-recommended treatment for insomnia. But you know what is? Exercise. Perhaps that’s why I sleep so well on a consistent basis; I exercise at least six days a week.
According to a new study, however, I’ll probably never find out. It seems as though exercise is not an immediate remedy for restless nights. Instead, it takes up to four months for its benefits to kick in.
Kelly Glazer Baron, a clinical psychologist and director of the behavioral sleep program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, recently did some data digging from a previous insomnia study she helped conduct. After hearing a lot of her current patients complain that aerobic exercise wasn’t immediately helping their sleep patterns, she had a hunch that it took some time and patience for the results to kick in, just like it does for your physique.
Sure enough, the data supported her guess. On a daily basis, insomnia and exercise are at odds with each other. If you don’t sleep well, you feel like you’re really struggling exercising the next day, even though your aerobic capacity remains unaffected. Overcoming that dragging feeling can be difficult, but the 16-week study showed that those who kept with it showed the greatest nighttime rewards.
“[My patients] would say, ‘I exercised so hard yesterday and didn’t sleep at all,’” Baron said. “The prevailing thought is that exercise improves sleep, but I thought it probably wasn’t that simple for people with insomnia.”
Of course, there are some major caveats to the study. First of all, it only involved middle-aged to older women. Not that I’m being sexist; as Baron points out, there have never been any evidence of gender differences in behavioral treatments of insomnia. What I’m curious about is the age part.
How hard do you think a 60-year-old woman is really likely to work out? Give me an hour and I guarantee I’ll do at least three times as much work, which to me would seem to indicate I’d make myself three times as exhausted. Would that make a difference on the short-term effects of exercise on insomnia? Perhaps not, but I’d take my chances as being higher.
Also, the study only involved 11 women. Not a very powerful study. If anything about sleep and exercise on a long-term basis is to be stated strongly, someone is going to need to conduct an actual experiment with a sample size at least 100 times larger.
The study, “Exercise to Improve Sleep in Insomnia: Exploration of the Bidirectional Effects,” was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine by Baron and colleagues Kathryn Reid, research associate professor of neurology at Feinberg and senior author Phyllis Zee, M.D., the Benjamin and Virginia T. Boshes Professor of Neurology at Feinberg and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.