Sleep in America 2013: Sleep & Exercise

While exercise can be an important contributor to your sleep health, a growing body of research suggests that you don’t need a high intensity, grueling workout to sleep better. Even small amounts of routine physical activity may improve your sleep and overall well-being.

This is good news for the many Americans who are failing to exercise regularly. According to the CDC, about 25 percent of U.S. adults report no leisure-time physical activity.

“In general, people who are exercising even a little bit are sleeping better,” said AASM spokesperson Michael A. Grandner, PhD, Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry and member of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA. “Physical activity is good for sleep.”

This year, the annual Sleep in America Poll also focused on sleep and exercise. The National Sleep Foundation released the results of its 2013 Sleep in America poll today.

While many people believe that exercising too close to bed can have a negative impact on sleep, the survey found that those who reported exercising close to bedtime and earlier in the day did not demonstrate a difference in self-reported sleep quality. In fact, for most people, exercise at any time seems to be better than no exercise at all.

Here are some of the other poll findings:

• Exercisers say they sleep better: Self-described exercisers report better sleep than self-described non-exercisers even though they say they sleep the same amount each night (6 hours and 51 minutes, average on weeknights). Vigorous, moderate and light* exercisers are significantly more likely to say "I had a good night's sleep" every night or almost every night on work nights than non-exercisers (67%-56% vs. 39%). Also, more than three-fourths of exercisers (76%-83%) say their sleep quality was very good or fairly good in the past two weeks, compared to slightly more than one-half of non-exercisers (56%).

• Vigorous exercisers report the best sleep: Vigorous exercisers are almost twice as likely as non-exercisers to report "I had a good night's sleep" every night or almost every night during the week. They also are the least likely to report sleep problems. More than two-thirds of vigorous exercisers say they rarely or never (in the past 2 weeks) had symptoms commonly associated with insomnia, including waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep (72%) and difficulty falling asleep (69%). In contrast, one-half (50%) of non-exercisers say they woke up during the night and nearly one-fourth (24%) had difficulty falling asleep every night or almost every night.

• Non-exercisers are the sleepiest and have the highest risk of sleep apnea: Non-exercisers tend toward being more excessively sleepy than exercisers. Nearly one-fourth of non-exercisers (24%) qualify as "sleepy" using a standard excessive sleepiness clinical screening measure. This sleepiness level occurs about twice as often than for exercisers (12-15%). Also, about six in ten of non-exercisers (61%) say they rarely or never have a good night's sleep on work nights. Sleepiness clearly interferes with many non-exercisers' safety and quality of life. One in seven non-exercisers (14%) report having trouble staying awake while driving, eating or engaging in social activity at least once a week in the past two weeks, almost three times the rate of those who exercise (4-6%).

• Less time sitting is associated with better sleep and health: Separate from exercise, spending less time sitting may improve sleep quality and health. Those who sit for less than eight hours per day sitting are significantly more likely to say they have "very good" sleep quality than those who sit for eight hours or more (22%-25% compared to 12%-15%). Furthermore, significantly more of those who spend less than 10 hours per day sitting mention excellent health, compared to those who spend 10 hours or more sitting (25-30% compared to 16%).

* Using a self-reported measure of physical activity, for which respondents considered physical activity they did for at least 10 minutes in the past 7 days, participants were classified into four different activity levels:  vigorous, moderate, light and no activity.  In this self-report measure, vigorous was defined as activities which require hard physical effort such as:  running, cycling, swimming or competitive sports.  The next level, moderate, was defined as activities which require more effort than normal such as:  yoga, tai chi and weight lifting.  Light activity was defined as walking, while those who do not do any activity classified themselves into the no activity level.  Segments are often referred to as vigorous exercisers, moderate exercisers, light exercisers and non-exercisers based on this measure of self-categorization.