We often hear that exercise improves sleep, and I’m a believer. When I skip my late afternoon workout on the elliptical trainer, I don’t fall asleep as easily or sleep as well.
But can vigorous mental exercise also lead to better sleep? I first heard the idea proposed during an interview with Michael Perlis, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at University of Pennsylvania, in September 2011.
“Since sleep is of and by and for the brain,” Perlis said, “it stands to reason that cognitive loading will be far more impactful on sleep . . . than exercise ever would.”
Perlis is a leading sleep specialist, so he should know. But I was doubtful. My work as a writer involves plenty of mental exertion, yet I’ve never found it amounts to a hill of beans when it comes to helping me sleep.
But now, in light of findings published in April in PLoS One, I think Perlis may be on to something after all.
New Research on Mental Workouts
The aim of this study, conducted by a pair of Israeli scientists, was to find out what effect an eight-week computerized cognitive training program would have on the mental sharpness and the sleep of older adults (aged 65 to 85) with insomnia.
The researchers took 51 older insomniacs and divided them into two groups. One group received computerized training designed to develop high-level cognitive skills: memorization, categorization, estimation, scanning, avoidance of distractions, and so forth. This training took place for 20 to 30 minutes three times a week.
The other group, the controls, performed computerized tasks that did not engage high-level cognitive functioning.
Not only did the group that underwent cognitive training improve their skills in naming (recognizing the first letter of an object’s name), avoiding distractions, and various kinds of memory. Their cognitive improvement also correlated with significant improvements in their sleep. Specifically,
- improved visual scanning was linked to falling asleep more quickly
- improved naming was linked to fewer awakenings at night, and
- increased ability to avoid distractions was linked to getting more sleep at night.
Notably, the control group experienced declines in working memory and ease of falling asleep.
The Take-home Message
So for those of us concerned about sleep as we age, it looks like it’s not just a matter of staying physically fit. Good sleep may also depend on keeping our brains active and challenging ourselves to learn new things.
Does mental exertion have an effect on your sleep? For better or for worse?