By John Ross
Forget counting sheep – scientists say the best way to get a good night’s sleep is to do some exercise.
New research has found that between 20 and 45 minutes of exercise such as walking or cycling can help people drop off to sleep more quickly and have an undisturbed night in bed.
Tests on insomnia sufferers found that gentle aerobic exercise cured their condition. They showed that regular aerobic exercise improved the quality of sleep, mood and vitality.
The study is said to be the first to examine the effect of aerobic exercise on middle-aged and older adults with a diagnosis of insomnia.
The aerobic exercise trial resulted in the most dramatic improvement in patients’ reported quality of sleep, including sleep duration, compared with any other drug-free prescription.
Lead author Professor Phyllis Zee, director of the Sleep Disorders Centre at Northwestern University, Chicago, said: “This is relevant to a huge portion of the population.
“It is essential that we identify behavioural ways to improve sleep. Now we have promising results showing aerobic exercise is a simple strategy to help people sleep better and feel more vigorous.”
She said a drug-free strategy for better sleep was desirable because it eliminated the danger of sleeping pills clashing with other medication a person might be taking.
Writing in the science journal Sleep Medicine, Prof Zee said: “By improving a person’s sleep, you can improve their physical and mental health.
“Sleep is a barometer of health, like someone’s temperature. It should be the fifth vital sign.
“If a person says he or she isn’t sleeping well, we know they are more likely to be in poor health with problems managing their hypertension or diabetes.”
The study included 23 sedentary adults, mostly women, aged 55 and over who had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, affecting their daytime activities.
Half the group exercised for two 20-minute aerobic sessions four times per week or one 30-40 minute session four times per week, both for 16 weeks.
Participants worked at 75 per cent of their maximum heart rate on at least two activities, including walking or using a stationary bicycle or treadmill.
Those in the non-physical activity group carried out recreational or educational activities, such as a cooking class.
Exercise improved the participants’ self-reported sleep quality and they also reported fewer depressive symptoms, more vitality and less daytime sleepiness