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Insomniacs may need regular exercise to get sleep benefits

How exercise can help you sleep better 01:22

Can't sleep? Some people may advise that you work out or go for a walk, but new research is showing that you'll have to develop an exercise routine before you see any sleep benefits.

"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 press release. "It's a long-term relationship. You have to keep at it and not get discouraged."

The study, which was published in the August issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, didn't reveal any shut-eye benefits from one exercise bout, however.

The research, which looked at data from 11 women between 57 to 60 years old with insomnia, was the first study to show that working out once may not help you get a good night's rest, the authors noted. But, even though the study was completed on women, Baron believed the results would hold true for men because the same methods and techniques are used to treat insomnia for both genders.

All the women in the study did not exercise before the study, and they worked their way up to 30 minute work out sessions three or four times a week.

The study showed that people who did not exercise had worse sleep, and those who had regular long-term exercise over a 16-week period were able to get more snooze time than those who didn't sustain the physical activity.

After the 16-week period, women who exercised were sleeping an extra 46 minutes a night for a total of 6 hours and 40 minutes. Before the study, they were averaging 5 hours and 54 minutes. The National Sleep Foundation's 2013 Sleep in America poll showed that Americans get about 6 hours and 51 minutes of sleep a night.

Baron said she was interested in the subject after her patients with insomnia kept reporting that they still couldn't sleep even though they were exhausted from working out.

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

She pointed out that people with insomnia have a heightened level of brain activity, and it takes them longer to reach a normal level that allows them to fall asleep. Baron said regular exercise could be a way to help fix the problem, without resorting to medications, which have been linked to increased safety risks.

The National Sleep Foundation's 2013 Sleep in America poll revealed that people who said they worked out slept better than those who didn't. The results still rang true even if both parties were getting the same amount of shut-eye each night.

However, an earlier study found the opposite effects reported in the new research: It showed that a single exercise session of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like walking, cut the time it took for people with chronic insomnia to fall asleep and allowed them to sleep much longer. People who did vigorous aerobic exercise (like running) or weight-lifting activities did not see the benefits.

"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."

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