Sleep is essential to good health and peak athletic performance, as we’ve already explored in a number of articles. A new study has thrown new light on the relationship between sleep and exercise, by showing that exercise can mitigate the many negative effects of a bad night’s sleep.

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We’ve returned a number of times in recent months to the subject of sleep and how important it is for training and recovery. Did you know, for instance, that a proper night’s sleep can double your testosterone levels? Well, it can.

Get Some Sleep

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Sleep is essential for a wide variety of bodily processes, including but not limited to repairing and building muscle. Indeed, sleep is a factor in training that gets far less attention than it should, and if you’re having a hard time making gains, you might want to look at your sleeping patterns.

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A bad night’s sleep, as well as affecting your testosterone levels, can also reduce your insulin sensitivity by as much as a fifth. It can increase oxidative stress in the body and also have a serious detrimental effects on physical and cognitive performance. 

Sleep deprivation has been shown to:

One of the most obvious ways to avoid these negative effects is, of course, to get more sleep. However, if you do end up having a bad night, or have chronic sleep troubles, it may be worth your while to get exercising, as a new study suggests. Exercise and sleep appear to be synergistic, and staying active appears to be able to reduce some of the most serious compound effects of lost sleep.

The researchers drew on information provided by 380,055 middle-aged (average age 55) men and women taking part in the UK Biobank study. The Biobank study is tracking the long-term health of more than 500,000 37-73 year olds who were recruited from across the UK between 2006 and 2010.

Participants supplied information on their normal weekly physical activity levels, which were measured in Metabolic Equivalent of Task (MET) minutes, a measure that is roughly equivalent to the amount of energy (calories) expended per minute of physical activity.

Following WHO guidelines, physical activity levels were categorised as high (1200 or more MET minutes/week); medium (600 to less than 1200); low (1 to less than 600); or no moderate to vigorous physical activity.

Sleep quality was categorised using a 0-5 sleep score derived from chronotype (‘night owl’ or ‘morning lark’ preference), sleep duration, insomnia, snoring and daytime sleepiness: healthy (4+); intermediate (2-3); or poor (0-1).

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A dozen physical activity and sleep pattern combinations were derived from the information supplied.

Participants’ health was then tracked for an average of 11 years up to May 2020 or death, whichever came first, to assess their risk of dying from any cause as well as from all types of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, all types of cancer, and lung cancer.

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The lower the sleep score, the higher were the risks of death from any cause, from all types of cardiovascular disease, and from ischaemic stroke.

Those with the healthiest sleep scores tended to: be younger, female, thinner, better off financially and more physically active; eat more fruit and vegetables; spend less of their day seated; have no mental health issues; never have smoked; not work shifts; and drink less alcohol.

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Those with no moderate to vigorous physical activity and poor sleep had the highest risks of death from any cause (57% higher). They also had the highest risk of death from any type of cardiovascular disease (67% higher), from any type of cancer (45% higher), and from lung cancer (91% higher).

Lower levels of exercise increased the unfavourable effects of poor sleep, across the board, with the exception of strokes.

The researchers conclude: “Physical activity levels at or above the WHO guideline (600 metabolic equivalent task mins/week) threshold eliminated most of the deleterious associations of poor sleep with mortality.”

Although exercise can clearly mitigate the effects of a bad night’s sleep, the ideal is of course to exercise and sleep well. To help you sleep better, you can follow these simple tips.

  • Create an appropriate sleep environment. Keep your sleeping space dark and cool with little to no noise. Reserve your sleep environment for sex and sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bedtime. These beverages can interrupt sleep or lead to more disturbed sleep.
  • Stay away from electronics in the hours before bedtime. This includes TVs, cell phones, and computers. The blue light that these devices emit can affect your circadian rhythm. If you want to use screens, invest in blue-light reducing glasses or install a blue-light reducing app.
  • Wind down. Activities such as reading, taking a bath, or meditating can help you relax and get ready to sleep.
  • Get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes of trying. Do a quiet activity in another space until you feel sleepy.
  • Nap briefly, if at all. Naps should last no longer than an hour and should not be taken after 3 p.m.
  • Reduce stressors. Not only do mental stressors affect sleep quality, but they also impact performance overall.

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