About half of adults aged 65 and older report having some sort of sleep problem, and according to Dr. ‘Sleep Ease’ authors Shawn Currie and Dr. Keith Wilson, reasons include chronic pain, age-related changes to the sleep/wake cycle, and bad sleep habits such as watching TV before bed. The most common sleep disorder is chronic insomnia, characterized by trouble falling asleep, waking too early in the morning, or waking in the night.
Studies have shown that a regular habit of exercise can help improve sleep patterns, although changes may take four weeks or longer. Studies by Passos et al.; 2011, and Reid et al.; 2010, showed that adults with insomnia fell asleep more quickly, slept longer, and had better sleep quality than before they began exercising. Not all exercise positively impacts sleep, so it is important to understand the type and timing of exercise if you are using it to improve sleep patterns. Some types of exercise can encourage a proper sleep and wake schedule, as well as help with stress control and mindfulness. Stress or anxiety and disruptions to the body’s internal clock are at the root of chronic insomnia, and thus certain forms of exercise can provide a natural way to assist in getting a good night’s rest.
1) Timing: Exercising first thing in the day can encourage a proper sleep wake cycle. Exercise acts as a natural stimulant, which can be better than a cup of coffee for getting going in the morning. Even if you are tired and have not slept during in the night, a bit of walking or other light exercise can help your body adjust its rhythm. Very intense exercise can be overly stimulating though, and thus if you exercise intensely later in the day you may have more trouble falling asleep at night. If you choose to exercise later in the day, some light afternoon activity such as stretching and deep breathing may be ideal. These activities help calm the mind and induce the relaxation response without being overly stimulating. Gentle, continuous stretching and yoga poses can help trigger an increase in body temperature, after which the post-exercise drop in temperature may induce evening sleep (Horne & Staff 1983.)
2) Environment: Many of us are not getting enough outdoor light during the day, creating light deficiency in our bodies, which can affect our biological clocks. In addition, we are often getting too much artificial light exposure in the evenings from computers and TV screens which interrupts our natural sleep wake rhythm. Outdoor light is much more intense than indoor light, and thus exercising in the outdoors first thing in the morning can provide a powerful stimulus to the brain to be awake and alert at the right time of day. While we typically spend much time indoors under 100-2000 lux units (the measurement of light intensity) outdoor light around midday is 100,000 lux units. This is a significant and powerful difference, as many people are light deficient which affects both mood and sleep. The combination of too little natural light during the day, and artificial light from screens at night can be lethal to proper sleep patterns. Thus, an outdoor walk in nature during the day may be just what you need to regulate your sleep.
Nature has additional health benefits, according to Dr. Greg Wells, Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Toronto. Wells states that walking in nature can also improve energy and decrease feelings of tension and tiredness much more than indoor activity of the same intensity. Being exposed to plants decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, decreases resting heart rate, and also decreases blood pressure, according to Dr Wells.
3) Type: As previously mentioned, exercise can be stimulating (much like caffeine), and thus the right intensity and timing are important if you want to encourage sleep at the right time. Mindful types of exercise can be most beneficial for proper sleep, as they help with stress control and reducing levels of anxiety. Stress and anxiety are strongly linked to sleep problems. In addition, gentle, mindful types of exercise can help with pain management and thus can provide help for those who wake in the night because of pain. Specific gentle and mindful activities include gentle yoga, Pilates, tai chi, and some forms of water exercise, as well as walking.
Since insomnia is commonly linked with elevated arousal, anxiety, and depression, exercise can have strongly positive effects in reducing these symptoms. In addition, exercise may help adjust and influence circadian rhythms (body clock) and thus be part of an overall healthy sleep plan.
Tai Chi Exercise: Earth and Sky
Directions: Find a relaxing place to perform this exercise. A quiet outdoor spot with plenty of green space is ideal. Stand with your legs shoulder width apart and breathe gentle and naturally, allowing your diaphragm to fill with air and then gentle release the breath. Notice if you are breathing through your chest, and bring your attention to your belly. Relax your face, jaw and neck. Notice if there is any tension in your body, and gentle relax by concentrating on the breath. To prepare the movement, bring your arms away from the sides of the body and reach up over your head as if you are “scooping” the sky with your hands. Slowly bring the hands in toward your chest as if you are pulling in the “scooped sky” into your midsection. Next, bend your knees and bring your hands down toward the earth as if you are “scooping” the earth. Then straighten your legs and bring your hands in toward your midsection as if you are pulling the “scooped earth” in to your midsection. Continue this exercise in a slow, continuous movement, while concentrating on the breath and on relaxing the body. Begin with 3-5 minutes as able.