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Does Exercise Help Sleep Apnea?

Can’t sleep? That’s a common problem amongst those with sleep apnea. 

If you’ve raised concerns about insomnia to your doctor, there’s a good chance that they have suggested regular exercise as a way to promote better quality sleep. However, when it comes to the impact of exercise on sleep, there’s a lot of contradictory information out there—about what kind to do, when to do it, how much to do, how hard to push yourself and what your objective should be.

There’s ample reason to exercise if you have sleep apnea. One study found that a 10 percent weight gain increases your odds of developing moderate or severe sleep apnea by six times and that those who are obese have a sevenfold increased risk of developing it. But even independent of weight loss, exercise has still been shown to reduce the severity of OSA.

We’ve written before about the link between diet and sleep apnea—and have outlined suggestions for oral exercises you can do with your mouth and throat to strengthen the muscles around your airway. (And with names like the “Tiger Yell” and “Tongue Slide,” you’re going to want to read about them for yourself!)

This blog post looks not at oral exercises or diet modifications, but at types of full-body exercises you can do to hopefully break the routine of nonrestorative sleep.    

But first things first, why does exercise help you sleep better?

Working up a sweat can encourage better sleep in the following ways, per the experts at the National Sleep Foundation and a widely cited study conducted by Brazilian researchers Flávio Maciel Dias de Andrade and Rodrigo Pinto Pedrosa:

  • It raises our body temperature—and the work that our body must do to lower it afterwards can promote sleep.
  • It promotes decreased anxiety and depressive symptoms, so there’s less chance of lying awake at night worrying.
  • It helps align our circadian rhythm, impacting our sleep/wake cycle.
  • It reduces daytime sleepiness and increases sleep efficiency.
  • It maximizes oxygen consumption.
  • It improves our systemic inflammatory response.

·   And a benefit of special importance to those with sleep apnea: It increases tone in our upper airway dilator muscle and decreases fluid accumulation in the neck.

Aim for moderate-intensity exercise over high-intensity exercise

The National Sleep Foundation points out that within the small body of research that explores the connection between sleep and exercise, evidence suggests that those with chronic insomnia fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer and sleep better after moderate-intensity exercise as opposed to vigorous aerobic exercise. This holds true whether the exercise in question was done in isolation or over a period of time.

One University of Pittsburgh School of Sleep Medicine study found that for adults with sleep apnea, an exercise program that combines brisk walking with weight training cut the severity of the disorder by 25 percent. 

“The most compelling point of the research was that this 25 percent reduction was achieved without any reduction in body weight,” says study researcher Christopher Kline, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Sleep Medicine.

Types of exercise to do for sleep apnea

To determine whether or not an activity fits the bill as “moderate activity,” aim for an increase in your heart and breathing rates, but don’t push yourself past the point of being able to carry on a conversation with someone.

Examples of moderate exercise include brisk walking, easy jogging, walking or jogging on an elliptical trainer or treadmill, bicycling under 10 miles per hour, water aerobics or swimming leisurely.

Or if you’re looking for a workout that doesn’t necessarily feel like a workout, you may want to try ballroom dancing, line dancing, gardening, or playing softball, baseball, volleyball or tennis. All of the above counts as moderate exercise.

What is the best time of day to exercise?

Since exercise increases endorphins and keeps body temperature elevated for 30 to 90 minutes after you’re done, some people find that exercising close to bedtime may keep them awake. This depends on the person.

“We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality,” says Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep. “But there’s still some debate as to what time of day you should exercise. I encourage people to listen to their bodies to see how well they sleep in response to when they work out.”

As a general rule of thumb, you should aim for two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week—or 30 minutes a day for five days a week.

For more information on therapeutic alternatives for treating sleep apnea, read about what foods to eat to help you sleep and types of meditation you can practice to fall asleep.