Get in enough steps and you may get better Zs. A new study led by researchers from Brandeis University found that walking and generally being active is related to better sleep, particularly in women.
“Results suggest that low-impact [physical activity] is positively related to sleep, more so in women than men,” according to the study published last month in the journal Sleep Health.
The study looked into whether walking and other everyday activity can affect sleep in healthy adults. Past research has typically focused on high-impact exercise or on populations such as college students or people with health or sleep problems.
The subjects were 59 people from the greater Boston area with an average age of 49.43 years. Each participant was studied for four weeks, researchers said.
Number of steps and minutes of activity were measured daily using a Fitbit Zip, while participants self-reported sleep quality as well as duration.
Over the four-week period, “women who took more steps and were more active reported sleeping better than those less active,” the study said.
The same improvement in sleep quality was not observed for men, a finding that researchers said was “interesting” and needed more study.
Neither women nor men exhibited any difference in the average amount of time they slept based on their varying levels of activity over the four weeks. The researchers noted that sleep duration can be tied to “one’s schedule or other obligations.”
There was one bit of good news for yawn-prone men. The researchers found that for both men and women, any single day of higher-than-average activity was followed by a night of better-quality, and longer, sleep.
Alycia Sullivan Bisson, a graduate student in psychology at Brandeis, conducted the study, ”Walk to a better night of sleep: testing the relationship between physical activity and sleep,” with her adviser, Margie Lachman, and Stephanie A. Robinson of the Bedford VA Medical Center.
Bisson said in an e-mail that the biggest takeaway from the study was that “participants didn’t need to do intense physical activity in order to see improvements in sleep.”
Michael Otto, a professor at Boston University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University who has studied exercise’s impact on sleep, said the study “provides another piece of evidence that exercise is useful for promoting sleep.”
He said he questioned the finding that more activity over the four-week period in men didn’t improve their sleep quality. Other research has suggested “that men may get more benefit (opposite to this study)” in terms of sleep from exercise, he said.
People need to be reminded, he said, “about how valuable adequate sleep is for health. For example, impaired sleep is a risk factor, among other things, for depression, weight gain, and dementia.”
“So anything that can help with sleep deserves attention, but an exercise intervention for sleep deserves even more attention because all the other benefits of exercise — improved mood, improved stress resilience, improved cognition, and reduced mortality — are offered as well,” he said in an e-mail. “Not a bad deal!”
The Brandeis study said that research shows 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, and 1 in 3 adults do not get enough sleep. Middle-aged and older adults are prone to sleeping problems.
More than 9 million adults older than 30 rely on sleep drugs, with their attendant dangers. “Perhaps one of the most promising alternatives for improving sleep” in America is physical activity, the study said.
Previous research has found that exercise, like biking, running, and swimming can improve sleep, the study said. Recent studies have begun to look at the impact of walking on sleep. “Our findings, along with [previous research], suggest higher-intensity structured exercise is not always needed to improve sleep,” the study said.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org