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Insomniacs Reap Sleep Benefits After Four Months of Exercise

Update Date: Aug 15, 2013 10:23 AM EDT
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McTiernan believes that a quarter of breast cancer cases could be prevented if women exercised and kept a healthy weight. (Photo : Flickr/yourdon)

Hitting the gym may not end your sleep troubles. While insomniacs are often told that exercise will help them sleep, new research reveals that spending 45 minutes on the treadmill one day won't mean you'll be sleeping better that night.

While the impact of exercise is not immediate, researchers say insomniacs might reap its benefits after four months of regularly working out.

"If you have insomnia you won't exercise yourself into sleep right away," lead study author Kelly Glazer Baron, a clinical psychologist and director of the behavioral sleep program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a news release. "It's a long-term relationship. You have to keep at it and not get discouraged."

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Most studies on exercise and sleep have been carried out on healthy sleepers, and the latest study is the first to look at the effect of aerobic exercise for those with existing sleep problems.

Baron said she decided to look at the daily effect of exercise after many of her patients with insomnia told her that the exercise she recommended didn't immediately end their sleep troubles.

"They'd say, 'I exercised so hard yesterday and didn't sleep at all,'" Baron said. "The prevailing thought is that exercise improves sleep, but I thought it probably wasn't that simple for people with insomnia."

The study included data from older women, who are most likely to suffer insomnia, and lasted for 16 weeks. Researchers found that the best way insomniacs can naturally solve their sleep problems is persistence.

"People have to realize that even if they don't want to exercise, that's the time they need to dig in their heels and get themselves out there," Baron said. "Write a note on your mirror that says 'Just Do It!' It will help in the long run."

However, researcher warned that bad sleep could also make people less inclined to exercise.

"Sleeping poorly doesn't change your aerobic capacity, but it changes people's perception of their exertion," Baron said. "They feel more exhausted."

Ultimately, exercise really is the best cure for insomnia, according to researchers.

"Patients with insomnia have a heightened level of brain activity and it takes time to re-establish a more normal level that can facilitate sleep," co-researcher Dr Phyllis Zee said in a statement. "Rather than medications, which can induce sleep quickly, exercise may be a healthier way to improve sleep because it could address the underlying problem."

"This new study shows exercise and sleep affect each other in both directions: regular long-term exercise is good for sleep but poor sleep can also lead to less exercise. So in the end, sleep still trumps everything as far as health is concerned," Zee added.

The findings are published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

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