Sleep After Exercise a Boost to the Brain

We tend to have more brain power following exercise and a good night’s sleep. But what aspect of sleep might explain the beneficial effects of physical activity on the brain? Is it sleeping longer that enhances mental prowess?

Authors of a new study think they know—and insomnia sufferers should take note.

Exercise increases sleep efficiency, in turn increasing brain powerWe tend to have more brain power following exercise and a good night’s sleep. But what aspect of sleep might explain the beneficial effects of physical activity on the brain? Is it sleeping longer that enhances mental prowess?

Authors of a new study think they know—and insomnia sufferers should take note.

Effects of Exercise on Sleep and Cognition

Research has shown that exercise—or physical activity in general—is beneficial to sleep. Physical activity helps people fall asleep quickly and sleep more deeply. It also tends to improve sleep efficiency, that is, it increases the amount of time in bed spent sleeping.

Exercise is also known to have positive effects on the brain. Physical activity enhances memory and the “executive control processes” that occur with activity in the frontal region of the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for planning, initiating, and monitoring complex mental and physical tasks.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the Georgia Institute of Technology were interested in these relationships. They wanted to know which aspect of sleep following exercise was associated with improved executive control, and whether there were differences between younger and older adults.

Study Particulars

A total of 112 community residents participated in the study, 59 young adults (ages 21–30) and 53 older adults (ages 55–80). They went through two rounds of cognitive testing spaced one week apart. The cognitive testing involved several computer-based and pencil-and-paper tasks assessing working memory, task switching, verbal ability and fluency, and delayed recall of information.

Participants also wore an accelerometer armband during the week between the two testing sessions. Similar to sleep and activity trackers on the market today, the accelerometer monitored participants’ physical activity and their sleep.

Sleep Efficiency Rules

As expected, the more physically active participants performed better on the tests. The novel finding was this: what mediated, or facilitated, this relationship was not that the exercisers slept longer than their sedentary counterparts. It was that their sleep was more efficient. This was true for both younger and older study participants.

A Relationship Between Sleep Efficiency and Insomnia

So sleep efficiency seems to be an important aspect of sleep. If you’ve got chronic insomnia—if you experience trouble thinking and concentrating after nights of broken sleep—you’ll want to take note. Insomniacs’ sleep is often inefficient. Your sleep efficiency is low if you

  • lie in bed awake for a long time before falling asleep,
  • wake up several times during the night, or
  • wake up in the middle of the night and take a long time to fall back to sleep.

Sounds familiar, right? In all these situations, you’re spending lots of time in bed lying awake rather than asleep. Your sleep efficiency is high if

  • you fall asleep quickly, and
  • your sleep is deep enough to remain solid and unbroken throughout the night.

When your sleep is efficient, you’re asleep most of the time you’re lying in bed and awake very little. This may not reflect your situation now, but it is something to work toward.

As the study above suggests, one way to improve your sleep efficiency is to get daily exercise. The authors’ “novel finding fits in line with the broad view that uninterrupted sleep may promote brain health and that this process may be facilitated through physical activity.”

There are also insomnia treatments that increase sleep efficiency. One was in the news recently, and I’ll write about it in next week’s blog post.

Does regular exercise have any effect on your sleep? If so, what is it?

Insomnia and Me: Squaring Off in Middle Age

I had my life organized so my insomnia was under control. I’d accepted—not very gracefully—the fact that I was going to have to get vigorous exercise not just 3 or 4 days a week but EVERY SINGLE DAY. This was part of the dues I personally was going to have to pay to be a member of the Recovering Insomniacs Club.

The exercise routine I came up with wasn’t bad. But then calamity struck.

SwimmingI had my life organized so my insomnia was under control. I’d accepted—not very gracefully—the fact that I was going to have to get vigorous exercise not just 3 or 4 days a week but EVERY SINGLE DAY. This was part of the dues I personally was going to have to pay to be a member of the Recovering Insomniacs Club.

The exercise routine I came up with wasn’t bad. Every day I forced myself to drop whatever I was doing at 5 p.m. to take a bike ride or head down to the basement for a session on the elliptical trainer. Sleep was more dependable as a result.

I even started looking forward to the workouts. Sometimes it took effort to warm up. But the surge of energy that usually came after 5 or 10 minutes, when my muscles were limbered up and working in sync, felt great. Not to mention the blissed-out feeling I had when I stopped. The extra slice out of my day wasn’t really such a big price to pay for holding insomnia at bay.

Trouble Strikes

Then I started having pain in my left knee. All weight-bearing activities that involved bending at the knee should be avoided for a few months, the orthopedist said.

“Oh, great,” I said to the doctor. “So now I can’t ride a bike?”

“Not until your knee gets better,” he said (a touch too cheerfully, I thought). “No jogging either, but the elliptical trainer might be OK.” Swimming was really the way to go, the doctor added–especially strokes with a flutter kick.

Swimming? Flutter kick? My heart sank. An hour-long schlep there and back to the pool in rush hour traffic? Changing into and out of a bathing suit every day? Showering and then washing and drying my hair in a locker room? The added expense? Why this, in God’s name, and why now?!

The grinding of my knee as I galloped along on the elliptical trainer made it clear that my Old Faithful was no longer an option. The facts were plain to see: I was going to have to become the fish I used to be in childhood. Otherwise my sleep was down the tubes.

A New Routine

I fumed over this turn of events for about a week. Then grudgingly I packed up my suit and towel, launched myself into rush hour traffic (listening to NPR to keep the road rage in check), and started swimming laps.

Swimming was OK. The water was cold at first but exhilarating by the end of the first lap. After 3 months, when I realized my knee problem was probably permanent, I started swimming at a wellness center newly opened up near my house.

Call it denial or a kind of middle-ager’s Stockholm Syndrome, but now I’ve decided I actually like swimming laps and look forward to it (if not to the 12-minute drive). Swimming in the lake outside my husband’s family cottage is even better. This photo was taken over Memorial Day, when the water was bracing. My sleep continues to be pretty good.

Swimming isn’t my first choice of exercise (and I certainly never chose my insomnia). But Stephen Stills got one thing right: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

What sleep challenges have you experienced or did you experience in middle age?

Can’t Sleep? Exercise May Help

“Doesn’t everybody hate exercise?” a friend said as we were talking about ways to manage insomnia. It made me stop and think. I’ve known some couch potatoes in my day. Either they’re bored by anything not cerebral or they’re in thrall to their digital devices. Exercise can’t compete with their fascinating sedentary pursuits.

In this video book trailer, I talk about how I came to realize that exercise helps me sleep.

“Doesn’t everybody hate exercise?” a friend commented as we were talking about ways to manage insomnia. It made me stop and think. I’ve known some couch potatoes in my day. Either they’re bored by anything not cerebral or they’re in thrall to their digital devices. Exercise can’t compete with their fascinating sedentary pursuits.

I’ve also known some lifelong jocks. Karate black belts who get up at 5 a.m. to crew and, oh, by the way, they’re training for a marathon, too. These folks love exercise: it’s a pleasure and a craving rather than a chore.

The truth is, most people I know fall somewhere in between, like me. Sure, we like a weekend bike ride. We’re big on walks. But vigorous daily exercise? The idea is faintly jarring. It sounds too much like work.

But my habits have changed since I realized how much exercise helps my sleep. If you’ve got the kind of insomnia where you have trouble calming down, listen to this book trailer and see if exercise has a bit more appeal.

Can’t Sleep? Exercise May Help

Q & A: Be Your Own Sleep Scientist

“What good is keeping a sleep diary,” Lawrence wrote to Ask The Savvy Insomniac recently, “when all it’s going to do is confirm what I already know?”

It might seem pointless—and like a whole lot of bother—to keep a sleep diary when you’ve lived many years with insomnia and know its shape and contour like the back of your hands. But I think it’s a valuable investigative tool.

sleep scientistWhat good is keeping a sleep diary, Lawrence wrote to Ask The Savvy Insomniac recently, when all it’s going to do is confirm what I already know? Insomnia is my problem—I’m lucky if I get 5 hours a night. Exactly how am I going to benefit if I find out that Monday night I slept 4 hours and 45 minutes and Tuesday I slept 6 minutes less? A colossal waste of time that I can see. Besides, clock watching tends to make my insomnia worse.

It might seem pointless—and like a whole lot of bother—to keep a sleep diary when you’ve lived many years with insomnia and know its shape and contour like the back of your hands.

But I think it’s a valuable investigative tool. Not only can keeping a sleep diary give you a more realistic picture of how much and how soundly you sleep. It can also help you zero in on habits that may be interfering with—or helping—your sleep. You can then adjust your habits accordingly.

How a Sleep Diary Works

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has a good sleep diary that you can download here. The task is to keep the diary for two weeks, noting every day when you do the following:

  • Go to bed (Don’t look at the clock after going to bed)
  • Sleep (Estimate the time you fall asleep), including time spent napping
  • Take medicine
  • Drink beverages with caffeine
  • Drink alcohol
  • Exercise.

You might also want to note how well rested you feel each morning.

Results

Tracking these variables over a two-week period may reveal quite a lot. In addition to discovering what your average total sleep time is (which may or may not be surprising), you might find that drinking a second cup of coffee at noon is OK, but a second cup at 2 p.m. tends to keep you up too late. Or you might discover that exercise helps you sleep more soundly. I did.

Now to be really scientific about this, you’d have to test these variables one at a time. One week, keep a sleep diary and vary the amount or timing of the caffeine you drink. The next week, vary the amount or timing of the alcohol. And so forth.

But for me personally, since I’m mostly a creature of habit, the amount and timing of the things I do doesn’t vary all that much from one day to the next. It’s the activities and habits that DO vary that may afford insight into how to avoid insomnia and improve your sleep.

Getting scientific about things can sometimes help.

Have you ever tried keeping a sleep diary? What, if anything, did you learn?

Q & A: Early Morning Insomnia

Early birds often awaken in the wee hours of the morning and miss out on social activities in the evening.

Here’s how to sleep later in the morning and delay evening sleepiness using appropriately-timed light exposure and exercise.

Advanced sleep phase disorder can be managed with bright light timed appropriately.Sleep timing varies from person to person and can stray pretty far from the norm. A visitor posted a question on Ask The Savvy Insomniac about waking up early and not being able to fall back to sleep. Here’s what she said:

“What I’ve always had is early morning insomnia, which has gotten earlier and earlier as I’ve gotten older. It used to be when I was working and living in New York City, I’d go to bed at 10 and wake up maybe at 4. Now I can’t keep my eyes open past 8:30. Often I wake up at 1 or 2 and can’t fall back asleep though I stay in bed. A lot of the time, I just don’t feel rested.”

But exercise, she went on to say, “seems to take away some of the tiredness. If I exercise and get my metabolism going, I’m much better. I jog in the morning right within an hour of when I get up.” Still, she said, she’d like to get more sleep. What could she do to prolong her sleep in the morning?

Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder (ASPD)

One problem here may be ASPD, the diagnosis given to people who tend to fall asleep and wake up much earlier than normal, who miss out on evening social activities and awaken in the wee hours of the morning. Rather than cycling every 24 hours, their body clock operates on a shorter cycle, prompting the urge to fall asleep and wake up early.

If this is your situation, changing your habits may help.

1)    Adjust your exposure to light. Light can have a big effect on the timing of sleep cycles, particularly daylight. Exposure to daylight early in the morning (as is habitual for the early morning jogger writing above) will shift your body clock in the wrong direction, making you sleepy soon after dinner. If you’re inclined to ASPD, you’ll want to dim your lights in the morning. Wear dark glasses if an early morning walk is part of the routine. Save your exposure to bright lighting for the evening, when it works in your favor. If turning on the living room lights full blast in the evening doesn’t keep you from nodding off, try sitting beside a light box while you’re reading or watching TV.

2)    Exercise late in the afternoon rather than early in the morning. Like light, bodily activity can affect the timing of sleep. While early morning exercise tends to make you want to nod off earlier in the evening, late afternoon or early evening exercise will delay your sleep cycle, which is what people with ASPD are looking for.

The Take-Away

Changes in light exposure and the timing of exercise may be helpful to early birds wanting more of a social life and less time awake in the dead of the night.

Sounder Sleep with Regular Exercise

For several years, I jogged, rode a bicycle or worked out at a gym three days a week. This physical activity was both a duty and a pleasure. It kept me healthy, and often it made me feel good. But it didn’t seem to affect my sleep one way or the other.

A new survey suggests that exercise generally tends to improve sleep.

Exercise-and-sleepFor several years, I jogged, rode a bicycle or worked out at a gym three days a week. This physical activity was both a duty and a pleasure. It kept me healthy, and often it made me feel good. But it didn’t seem to affect my sleep one way or the other.

A new survey suggests that exercise generally tends to improve sleep. Data from the National Sleep Foundation 2013 poll released on Monday show that

  • Exercise correlates with better sleep quality. About 83 percent of the survey respondents who got vigorous exercise reported their sleep quality to be “very good” or “fairly good,” as well as 76 to 77 percent of the respondents whose exercise was light to moderate. Only 56 percent of the non-exercisers reported good sleep quality.
  • Exercise helps you fall asleep faster. Non-exercisers reported taking nearly twice as long to get to sleep as those who exercised vigorously.
  • Exercise cuts down on feelings of sleepiness during the day. Nearly twice as many non-exercisers (24 percent) as exercisers (12 to 15 percent) experienced excessive daytime sleepiness.

Walking the Walk

Everyone knows we should get more exercise (just like we should eat more fruit and vegetables and pass on dessert). But finding the motivation to actually do the exercise is another matter. It can also be hard to find the time. After a day’s work, fixing dinner, playing with Junior and then getting him to bed, when can you fit it in?

The motivation issue can be tough to contend with, especially if you’re not convinced there’s a relationship between physical activity and your sleep, which is how I felt.

Keeping a Sleep Diary

Then about five years ago a sleep therapist suggested keeping a sleep diary for a couple weeks. I did, recording daily the time it took to fall asleep, the number of times I woke up, how long I slept and the amount of exercise I got.

The diary revealed a clear pattern. Overall, I slept better and longer, and fell asleep more easily, on nights following afternoon workouts on the elliptical trainer. There it was in black and white—the facts spoke for themselves.

This motivated me to start exercising every day, and it’s clear now that daily exercise really helps my sleep. So one way of tackling the motivation issue may be to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks to see if there is in fact a relationship between exercise and your sleep.

Finding time to exercise may be a harder problem to solve. I’ll consider this in a separate blog but, for now, the National Sleep Foundation poll concludes that “exercise, or physical activity in general, is generally good for sleep, regardless of the time of day the activity is performed.”

National Sleep Foundation – 2013 Exercise and Sleep Poll

 

Too Aroused for Sleep? Try Yoga

Sat Bir Khalsa, a professor and researcher at Harvard Medical School, thinks that among alternative treatments for insomnia, yoga may also be a viable solution for people who feel too aroused to sleep.

I attended Khalsa’s presentation at a conference a while back. Here’s the gist of what he said.

Insomnia sufferers may want to try yoga to prepare for sleepAn acquaintance of mine said she’s often “just too wound up, too hyped up” to sleep.

I know the feeling. It‘s like my body’s stuck in overdrive, and I can’t find the brakes. The best solution for me is physical exercise.

But Sat Bir Khalsa, a professor and researcher at Harvard Medical School, thinks that among alternative treatments for insomnia, yoga may also be a viable solution for people who feel too aroused to sleep. I attended Khalsa’s presentation at a conference a while back, and later I contacted him for more information.

“Yoga works on inducing the relaxation response,” Khalsa said, producing “a reduction in stress system activation. Yoga and meditation practice also changes the perception of stress … creating a positive change in stress tolerance.”

Sounds good to me. But is there proof?

A small number of studies attest to the benefits of yoga as a strategy for managing insomnia, and some of them are randomized controlled trials (RCTs). In RCTs, the results of subjects who undergo a treatment are compared to the results of control subjects who do not, a protocol considered by scientists to meet the highest standard of proof.

  • An RCT conducted in an Indian home for the aged produced spectacular results: subjects who practiced an hour of yoga six days a week for six months increased their total sleep time by a whopping 60 minutes a night! They also reported greater ease in falling asleep and feeling more rested in the morning.*
  • In an RCT published last year, postmenopausal women in Brazil experienced a significant reduction of insomnia symptoms and increased stress resistance following four months of yoga practice.**
  • Khalsa’s RCT, which he discussed at the conference, showed that the sleep of subjects who practiced 45 minutes of yoga before bedtime every day for eight weeks improved substantially more than the sleep of control subjects, who received information about sleep hygiene. Yoga subjects reported increases in total sleep time that were two and three times as great as the increases made by controls. (Again, we’re talking in the neighborhood of 60 minutes’ more sleep a night.)

Yoga may achieve its calming effects in a paradoxical way, Khalsa told me, by increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol while at the same time improving stress tolerance. The overall effect is to decrease feelings of arousal.

This is why insomniacs – particularly those who tend to feel wound up at night – may want to try it out.

*   Influence of Yoga & Ayurveda on self-rated sleep

** Yoga decreases insomnia in postmenopausal women