Exercise to beat insomnia: you need more than you think

It’s a Catch-22: A night of poor sleep leaves you tired and drained of energy, and the very thing that could help improve your sleep—exercise—is the last thing you’re inclined to do. What’s more, new research suggests that while exercise does help to improve sleep over time, a single workout one morning doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll fall asleep easier that night.

That’s disappointing for those looking for a quick fix for sleepless nights.

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The small study involving 11 women with chronic insomnia found that those who started walking, biking, or running on a treadmill three times a week for 30 minutes at a time noticed an improvement in their sleep habits at the end of 16 weeks. But the researchers also found that on a day-to-day basis, getting a good workout didn’t predict a good night’s sleep, according to the results published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine .

What they did find, though, was that those who felt the most tired due to getting a poor night of sleep wound up exercising less the next day—about a minute less for every half-hour of lost sleep they had the night before.

Previous “research has demonstrated that sleep loss affects exercise tolerance, motivation, and mood,” wrote the researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. And another study found that college basketball players who increased their sleep time had faster sprint times, improved free-throw accuracy, and less fatigue on the court.

For those with chronic sleep problems, the researchers concluded, daily exercise can be a great way to help improve insomnia over time. But they should also understand that they’ll need to commit to a regular exercise regimen—hopefully for life—rather than thinking that a single workout will quickly provide a better night’s sleep, an assumption that might cause many with insomnia to quit exercising in frustration.