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Exercise Tips to Reduce the Severity of Sleep Apnea

Did you know that sticking your tongue out can be good for your health? This is particularly true for those diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. Singing or playing a musical instrument, practicing yoga breathwork and aerobic movement are other useful sleep apnea exercises.

Because we believe that good sleep is the foundation to better health, we’re sharing instructions for how to make the most of these alternative sleep apnea treatment options.

Mouth and throat exercises for sleep apnea

One way to ensure a workout for your entire mouth is to chew evenly on both sides when eating. But you can also practice mouth and throat exercises that are designed to strengthen the muscles around your airway passages.

The oral sleep apnea exercises described below target the muscles within the oropharynx, which includes the mouth and throat. These muscles help us chew, swallow, breathe and speak.

Most of these exercises center on the tongue. The tongue’s normal position is with its tip against the hard palate, just behind the front teeth. These exercises from the National Sleep Foundation can help it stay there. Slip them into your routine three or four times a day in repetitions of 20.

  • Push the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth and slide it backward.
  • Suck your tongue upward to lie against the roof of your mouth.
  • Force the back of your tongue downward against the mouth floor, keeping the tip in contact with your bottom front teeth.

A few other recommended sleep apnea exercises come with funny names to help you remember them. One is the “Tiger Yell” and the other the “Tongue Slide.”

  • Open your mouth wide as if to scream, then hold it for five minutes. This strengthens muscles in the back of the throat.
  • Stick your tongue out as far as you can and try to touch your nose, then stretch as far as you can to the left, then the right, holding each position for a few seconds. Then finally, try to touch your chin. This strengthens the jaw.

This type of myofunctional therapy­­­ - facial exercises strengthening the throat, tongue, neck and mouth - can have a positive halo effect on health by improving sleep quality. For maximum effectiveness, the exercises should become part of your regular daily routine.

Singing and playing a musical instrument for sleep apnea

Could picking up a new hobby help you sleep better? Yes, if that hobby is singing and/or playing a musical instrument. When singing specifically to strengthen your neck, start with each vocal vowel and be sure to feel the vibrations in your neck and throat.

Playing a brass or wind instrument can also be helpful to build throat, tongue and neck strength. For history lovers, the digeridoo is a large wind instrument originating in Australia more than a century ago but still widely available. The instrument was the subject of a sleep apnea study conducted at the University of Zurich, which concluded that participants who practiced a digeridoo for 20 minutes five days a week experienced a reduction in daytime sleepiness.

The role of physical activity in treating sleep apnea

Regular aerobic exercise can also decrease daytime sleepiness and increase oxygen compensation, whether or not weight is lost. It is most helpful for its role in enhancing muscle tone in the airways and decreasing the accumulation of neck fluid. This is key because as neck size increases, the risk for blockage does, too.

Yoga, which involves breathing from the diaphragm, may also reduce blockages to the airway.

Regular physical exercise can also offset the consequences of obstructive sleep apnea such as cardiovascular disorders and glucose intolerance. As a result of sleep apnea, sudden drops in blood oxygen levels can increase blood pressure and strain the cardiovascular system, increasing the risk of hypertension and heart failure.

One study attributed regular brisk walking and weight training to a 25 percent reduction in sleep apnea symptom severity, even without weight loss.

Is it safe to exercise before bed?

While exercise can be helpful for easing sleep apnea symptoms, timing is everything when it comes to breaking a sweat. Stuart Quan, MD, the Gerald E. McGinnis professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School and editor of the Sleep and Health Education Program, cautions that some individuals become too overstimulated by exercise to be able to wind down for sleep.

Dr. Quan recommends giving yourself a few hours between workout and sleep so your body temperature can stabilize, heartbeat return to rest, and adrenaline levels stabilize.

Practicing sleep apnea exercises can help improve the quality of life for sleep apnea sufferers.