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Want to Sleep Better? Exercise!

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If you have trouble sleeping, chances are you don't exercise. Or you don't exercise enough or exercise properly.

Exercise (physical and mental) is one of the most important things you can do to overcome or lessen insomnia.

It can help you to fall asleep easier and faster and sleep more restfully and deeper when you do. For some people, exercise by itself is enough to overcome their insomnia.

Why Exercise Promotes Sleep

Exercise helps you to sleep better for a couple of reasons. Exercise is a beneficial stressor to the body. The brain compensates for the physical stress by increasing the amount of time you spend in deep sleep (stage 4 sleep).

Exercise also encourages sleep because it causes one's body temperature to rise and then fall by equal amount a few hours later. This drop in your body temperature makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Exercise and Bright Light

Exercise may also help people to sleep because people often exercise outside, increasing their exposure to bright light (sunlight). This bright light exposure helps to properly regulate the body-temperature rhythm which makes it easier to sleep better.

These two factors, exercise and exposure to sunlight, may help explain why people find it so easy to sleep well when they have spent extended time outdoors, such as when they are camping or hiking.

For example, the best sleep I've ever had in my life was in a very unexpected place. After hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I slept on slightly padded granite under the stars with wild animals all around me.

None of it bothered me in the least, however, because I slept at least nine hours, and they went by in a flash. I'm sure I slept so well in a place seemingly hostile to sleep because of my physical activity and sun exposure.

If you think about it, you'll probably remember a similar story in how you slept great after an active day outside.

Big Difference

Skeptical about the positive effects of exercise on sleep?

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine studied how exercise affects sleep patterns of people aged 55-75 who were not physically active and had insomnia. They were asked to moderately exercise for 20-30 minutes every other day in the afternoon. The outcome of their exercising was that they fell asleep 50% faster and slept nearly one hour longer. Very impressive!

When to Exercise to Combat Insomnia

To overcome insomnia, it's probably best to exercise in the late afternoon or early evening. If you must exercise earlier than this, then by all means do so, but exercising at this time may not be as effective in combating insomnia as exercising later in the day.

You should not exercise in the late evening or just prior to going to bed. Exercise at this time of the day will not give your body enough time to cool down and calm down, making it difficult to sleep. If this time is the only opportunity you have to exercise, then make it a light exercise, nothing approaching strenuous.

Bottom line: Try to exercise three to six hours before bedtime to get the maximum sleep benefits.

Keep Your Body & Mind Confused

To benefit as much as possible from exercise, you don't want to do the exact same thing all of the time.

Your body and mind will get used to the exercise you are performing and they will not be as stimulated by it. In fact, if you get used to it enough, it will hardly be exercise at all. Not to mention, it will also be becoming boring, and this means you will be less likely to do it, if you do it at all.

Also, by making yourself do different exercises, or at least variations on the same exercise, you are exercising your mind because it must first think to come up with something at least a little different and then work to properly learn and perform the new exercise or variation. If you don't struggle to some degree when you exercise, then you aren't really exercising.

How to Motivate Yourself to Exercise

If you have insomnia, then understanding that exercise can help you sleep better should be a powerful motivator to exercise.

However, getting into a good exercise routine is hard. So I've put together 100 more exercise benefits. Print out the page, and put it someplace where you will see it often. It's nearly impossible to read the list even partially and not feel some motivation to exercise.

Best Exercises for Sleep

There are two types of exercise: aerobic and anaerobic.

Aerobic means "with oxygen." Aerobic exercises increase the amount of oxygen in the blood. Examples of aerobic exercises include jogging, walking, swimming, bicycling, jumping rope, dancing, riding a stationary bicycle, and using a treadmill.

Anaerobic, or nonaerobic, means "without oxygen." Anaerobic exercises, such as slow walking, bowling, or strength training with weights, are important to your overall fitness.

Aerobic exercises, however, are probably the best to combat sleeplessness. However, if you dislike aerobic exercise but like anaerobic, then doing anaerobic is certainly better than no exercise. And anaerobic exercises alone will likely help you sleep better, just probably not as well as aerobic ones.

To help yourself to sleep well, you should get 15-45 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on a daily or near daily basis. The physical activity does not need to be performed at all one time. It can be broken up throughout the day. If you want to exercising longer or engage in high intensity activity, then do so. Just make sure you are healthy enough for it.

It's a good idea to build up level of physical activity by starting with low-intensity activities for short duration a few times a week, then gradually increasing the duration and frequency. Those who plan to start more vigorous physical exercise or who have a chronic health problem should first consult their physician to plan a safe, effective program.

Mental Exercise

Just as we need to be physically active to sleep well, we also need to be mentally active.

Mental exercise, like physical exercise, has been shown to result in better sleep. To put it differently, boredom or a lack of mental activity can reduce the need to sleep and contribute to insomnia, just as a lack of physical exercise can.

Strong mental activity encourages improved sleep because it is a positive stressor on the mind, and the brain will recuperate from this activity and process it by sleeping more deeply.

My own experience and history with insomnia supports this. For years, I've kept detailed sleep logs in which I record what I did on a particular day and how I slept that night. On days when I actively use my mind, such as when I learn a new and difficult task, I tend to sleep better on those nights. On days when I'm a couch potato mentally and have my mind in neutral (TV watching, Internet surfing), I tend to not sleep as well on those nights. (As a result, I have eliminated "mentally neutral" days as much as possible.)

When To Be Mentally Active for Maximum Sleep Benefits

Just as with physical exercise, you should not be highly mentally active right before bedtime. Unlike physical exercise, however, you usually don't need several hours to calm down from mental exercise. Probably about an hour is enough transition time from mental exercise to going to bed.

While you should not be highly mentally active before bedtime, this does not mean that you should be bored before bedtime. Boredom creates anxiety and stress, and this can interfere with falling asleep easily and staying asleep. Just before bedtime, TV watching, reading, talking are acceptable as long as they don't cause boredom or, on the flip side, excitement.

How To Stimulate Your Brain

Anything that you do differently in your day will stimulate your brain by causing it to work more to process the new information. This will let you sleep better at night because your brain will require more deep sleep to properly recuperate.

Here are some very simple ideas to get you started. With a little effort you will surely be able to come up with more.

By doing things differently than you normally do, you knock the dust off much of your brain and force it to work hard, instead of just going through the motions with ease. And a brain that gets worked hard is a brain that sleeps well. Not to mention that doing things differently will add some spice & variety to your life.


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