How to sleep better: Exercise regularly, study shows

TRONDHEIM, Norway — Sleep is essential to robust health, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to come by — especially lately. The pandemic left countless people tossing and turning all night long, with insomnia rates skyrocketing over the past few years. There are endless sleep aids out there that claim to help promote slumber, from prescription pills to over-the-counter remedies, but new research out of Norway reports the best recipe for a good night’s sleep is a solid workout at the gym.

Scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology report physically fit individuals are less likely to need a sleeping pill prescription from their doctor. Over 34,000 adults were analyzed to reach these findings.

“We’ve observed that people who are in better physical condition have a lower risk of taking prescription sleeping pills,” says Linda Ernstsen, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Public Health and Nursing, in a university release.

Sleepless men benefit more from exercising

This study used data originally collected by Norway’s large Trøndelag Health Survey (The HUNT study). Roughly 240,000 people from Trondheim, Norway have participated in the survey since it started in 1984, with four survey rounds having been carried out so far.

Intended to help researchers track how people’s health evolves over the years, study authors linked up the HUNT data with information from the Norwegian Prescription Database to conduct this latest project. Participants in the third HUNT study (2006-2008) were tracked until Jan. 1, 2018.

“Almost 5,800 of the participants received their first prescription sleep medication during the study period,” Prof. Ernstsen adds.

About 17 percent of the group’s sleep issues became serious enough to warrant a prescription from a doctor. However, those who were in the best physical condition used fewer prescription drugs. “These findings suggest that being in physically fit can also help you sleep better,” Prof. Ernstsen notes.

Notably, the sleep benefits of exercise appear stronger among men than women. The fittest men displayed a 15-percent lower risk of needing drugs to sleep.

“The corresponding percentage risk for the fittest women was much lower. But women who struggle with sleep can still benefit from getting in better shape,” Prof. Ernstsen comments.

All in all, study authors believe these findings driven by long-term tracking should influence the sleep advice that doctors give to patients.

“Our findings support the idea that improving or maintaining fitness can be an effective alternative for preventing sleep problems,” Prof. Ernstsen concludes.

The study is published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

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