Strength training may be the best exercise for improving sleep

For study participants who hadn’t been able to get at least seven hours of regular sleep, strength training added an average of 40 minutes of sleep, the researchers found. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

People struggling with lousy sleep often turn to the sidewalk, treadmill, or bike, thinking aerobic exercise will buy them a few more minutes of solid sleep.

They might be better off weighing a few weights, according to a new study.

Resistance exercises appear to be better than aerobic workouts for improving your 40 winks if you have trouble sleeping, researchers reported Thursday at a meeting of the American Heart Association in Chicago.

For study participants who hadn’t been able to get at least seven hours of regular sleep, strength training added an average of 40 minutes of sleep, said lead researcher Angelique Brellenthin, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University.

In comparison, aerobic exercise increased sleep time by 23 minutes for another group with similar sleep issues, Brellenthin said.

“Basically, the resistance exercises nearly doubled the extra sleep time they got from participating in this study,” she said.

Between 30% and 50% of adults report having poor quality sleep, and more than a third regularly sleep less than seven hours, the researchers said in briefing notes.

Poor sleep isn’t just an annoyance, it’s a health hazard. Poor sleep increases your overall risk of death by 24% and your risk of heart-related death by 42%, researchers found.

It’s been known for some time that aerobic exercise can improve sleep, but few studies have looked at whether strength training might offer the same kind of benefits, Brellenthin said.

So she and her colleagues analyzed data from a study funded by the US National Institutes of Health looking at how exercise can improve health. As part of the study, participants were asked about their sleep.

The study included 386 people who were randomly assigned to one of four groups – an aerobic exercise team, a resistance training team, a combined aerobic/resistance exercise team, and a control group to which no exercise has been assigned.

Aerobics could sweat on a treadmill, bicycle or elliptical trainer, while the weight group had to perform a full circuit on 12 resistance machines that worked all major muscle groups, the researchers said.

All were asked to work for one hour three times a week, for a full year. The researchers assessed their state of health at six months and one year.

Exercise didn’t make much of a difference for people who were already sleeping well, Brellenthin said.

“People who were already sleeping well to begin with, the whole study didn’t really do much to improve their sleep any further,” she said.

But any exercise helped improve poor sleep, especially resistance exercise. Poor sleepers in the combined exercise group saw their sleep improve by about 17 minutes.

Why can strength training promote better sleep?

One possible explanation, Brellenthin said, is that weightlifting promotes the release of hormones that support muscle growth.

“Perhaps resistance exercise is a way to stimulate or invigorate the types of hormones that have been more widely associated with better, deeper sleep,” she said.

Another possibility involves a theory that sleep is a time the body takes to restore and repair itself, Brellenthin said. Vigorous weight training is meant to create many small muscle tears which, when repaired, lead to bigger and stronger muscles.

“When you train on 12 different resistance exercise machines that stimulate every major muscle in the body, that’s a pretty powerful body-wide stimulus that could send a strong signal to the brain – hey, that person has need to undergo a major restoration process tonight, let’s make sure they sleep and sleep soundly,” Brellenthin said.

The findings are “new and intriguing,” said Pamela Lutsey, associate professor of epidemiology and community health at the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“Clearly, there are benefits to both resistance training and aerobic exercise, and both are recommended in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans,” she said. “Aerobic exercise often gets the most attention, but resistance training is also an important part of these recommendations.”

Lutsey, who was not part of the study, said more research is needed to find out whether one or the other is better at improving sleep quality.

Results presented at medical meetings are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

Johns Hopkins has more information on exercise for better sleep.

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