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The relationship between sleep and exercise is a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Does regular exercise lead to better sleep, or does a good night’s sleep provide you with the energy and motivation necessary to exercise regularly?

After combing through recent studies on the topic, one will likely notice the answer to that question remains unclear. The one common thread, however, is researchers overwhelmingly link the two as inseparable partners in the achievement of good health.

“Poor sleep might lead to negative health partly because it makes people less inclined to exercise,” said Shawn Youngstedt, PhD, a poll task force member of the National Sleep Foundation’s (NSF) 2013 Sleep America Poll. “Not exercising and not sleeping becomes a vicious cycle.”

That said, it seems most researchers, like Max Hirshkowitz, task force chair for the same poll, tend to believe that while both exercise and sleep are invariably linked, increasing one’s physical activity is the key to breaking the “vicious cycle” Youngstedt warned about.

“Our poll data certainly find strong relationships between good sleep and exercise,” he said. “While cause and effect can be tricky, I don’t think having good sleep necessarily compels us to exercise. I think it is much more likely that exercising improves sleep. And good sleep is fundamental to good health, productivity and happiness.”

Dr. David White, chief medical officer for Philips Home Healthcare Solutions, drives home the point.

“People simply need to take sleep much more seriously,” he said. “Sleep is not optional – it is absolutely critical to people’s health.”

Sleep is Health

Throughout the last several years, hundreds of sleep studies have each essentially concluded one or two things: we as a society sleep less than we once did, and this lack of sleep affects us negatively in a number of different ways.

According to the NSF, for instance, between 1959 and 1992, the amount of sleep by middle-aged Americans decreased by an average of one hour per night. Additionally, a separate study by the NSF found that the percentage of people who reported sleep problems increased 13 percent since 2001, and the number of Americans who sleep less than six hours a night jumped from 13 to 20 percent in that time.

“These findings probably demonstrate the development of widespread partial sleep deprivation or sleep ‘restriction’ which is most likely related to external environmental or social factor(s), such as the need to work more than one job or longer work shifts, rather than a biologic change in the need for sleep,” the NSF concluded.

To what extent, then, does sleep deprivation result in poor health and quality of life? According to Dr. White, the lack of sleep can harm the body and the mind in several ways.

“The consequences of not sleeping enough are well documented,” he said. “People who do not get enough sleep can gain weight, are prone to diabetes, high blood pressure and even heart attacks. We are facing a serious healthcare problem if we do not take sleep more seriously.”

The lack of sleep has also been linked to weakened immune systems, depression/anxiety, and the increased risk of some cancers … many of the same health issues researchers have linked to the lack of exercise.

Gait-way to Slumber

With exercise and sleep invariably linked, it stands to reason that if you improve one, and you can improve the other. This has certainly proven true for a number of people, says David Cloud, C.E.O. of the National Sleep Foundation.

“Exercise is great for sleep,” he said. “For millions of Americans who want better sleep, exercise may help.”

It doesn’t have to be vigorous exercise, according to Hirshkowitz – at least not at first. According to the NSF 2013 Sleep America Poll, all exercisers – from vigorous and moderate exercisers down to light exercisers – are much more likely to say “I had a good night’s sleep” than those who remain inactive.

If you’re an inactive person, good sleep can start with a few small steps … literally.

“If you are inactive, adding a 10-minute walk every day could improve your likelihood of a good night’s sleep,” he said. “Making this small change and gradually working your way up to more intense activities like running or swimming could help you sleep better.”

And while it’s normal to feel tired on occasion, especially if you’re striving to remain active, this shouldn’t be the norm.

“…if fatigue is your normal state, it warrants a conversation with your doctor,” said Matthew Buman, PhD, a NSF poll task force member. “It could be a red flag that something is wrong with your health.”

For more information about sleep – signs you may be suffering from sleep deprivation as well as tips for getting a better night’s sleep – visit the National Sleep Foundation at sleepfoundation.org.


Medical News Today: Exercise Is The Key to Good Sleep
National Sleep Foundation: Poll Finds Exercise Key to Good Sleep
Philips: Sleep Deprivation a Health Hazard Yet to be Taken Seriously
National Sleep Foundation: How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?
Washington Post: Scientists Finding Out What Losing Sleep Does to the Body