How are you sleeping lately?
Do you wake up feeling well-rested, or is it a struggle to even open your eyes in the morning?
Maybe you’re not aware, but there is a strong link between physical activity and the quality of your sleep. It can also be a vicious circle, however: you wake up feeling lousy and stay in bed, thus missing out on hours of vital physical activity and then go to bed later in the evening and struggle to fall asleep because your body isn't tired enough. And so the negative cycle continues.
So, if you’re having trouble sleeping through the night, this may be a sign that you’re not getting enough exercise, and consequently, you could be putting your health at risk.
How can you be on top form if you don’t have enough energy?
Whether you sleep poorly or you just don’t sleep for long enough, there is a large risk to your quality of life and the opportunity to improve it.
With work days becoming even longer, work-related stress and worries about balancing your career with family life, insomnia is becoming more and more common.
There is a solution to this available, but it involves taking medication to force your body into an unnatural sleep.
This is an effective option for many, however, it isn’t without consequence.
Taking sleeping pills can cause problems with appetite, digestion, nausea, and some people even become dependent on them.
So what else should you do?
There is a simple answer for those who want to greatly increase their chances of a restful night’s sleep: exercise.
So, let’s take a look at how following a good personal training program can help you get your sleeping pattern back on track.
The Sleep Cycle
Before we look at how sport can contribute to sleep, let’s first try to understand the workings of a night’s sleep. After all, we do spend a third of our lives asleep!
Sleep isn’t linear. In actual fact, your body goes through 4-5 sleep cycles per night.
Each cycle represents one stage of your 8-hour sleep.
The main phases of your whole sleep cycle are:
- Falling asleep: Eye movements slow down, but you are still aware of what is going on around you.
- Light sleep: Brain waves slow down as you drop into a slightly deeper stage of sleep.
- Light sleep becomes deep sleep: You become less responsive and it’s harder for you to be woken up. This stage is formed of two sub-stages. This is when the body repairs tissues and builds energy.
- REM (rapid eye movement) sleep: Your brain it at its most active and dreaming occurs.
Each cycle lasts around 90 minutes, and an average adult takes 5-6 REM cycles every night.
- Falling Asleep
To fall asleep, your breathing becomes slower, your muscles relax and you become less conscious of your surroundings.
This first phase of sleep is what is usually referred to as being ‘half-asleep’, when people start to experience involuntary muscle twitches and a sensation of falling from a height.
This stage is only very light, so you can be woken up by a noise of some kind.
- Light Sleep
This stage is not yet deep sleep; however, it is the one that lasts the longest.
You can still be easily awoken by a noise or a light, but you will feel like you have spent some time asleep.
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At this point in the cycle, eye and muscle movements slow as well as brain activity.
- Light Sleep Becomes Deep Sleep
During this phase of the cycle, you fall into a deeper state and you gradually become cut off from the world around you – it’s hard to wake you up.
This is an incredibly important stage, when your body recovers from physical fatigue and repairs any damaged tissue so that you’re fit to face the next day.
- REM Sleep
The REM stage is where, although you are in a deep phase, you show signs of consciousness such as facial movements, irregular breathing and even talking!
This is the stage at which your brain dreams, and is awake on another level of consciousness.
- Regulating Your Sleep Pattern
There are two types of sleep regulation. The first is the regulation of the sleep-wake homeostasis which is balanced against the circadian rhythm.
Sleep-wake homeostasis is all about your ability to fall asleep at a given time based on the amount of sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain.
Circadian oscillation is what is commonly referred to as the ‘body clock’ and regulated the body’s internal processes.
The internal body clock is, itself, regulated by the level of light. The level of brightness in an environment affects the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin.
The Science Behind Sleep
Sleep makes up around a quarter to a third of the average person's lifespan, which is a strong indicator that our bodies need this state to function for the rest of the time. So what exactly are our bodies doing during this rest or downtime?
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) explains that there are:
"several structures within the brain are involved with sleep.
The hypothalamus, a peanut-sized structure deep inside the brain, contains groups of nerve cells that act as control centers affecting sleep and arousal. Within the hypothalamus is the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) – clusters of thousands of cells that receive information about light exposure directly from the eyes and control your behavioral rhythm. Some people with damage to the SCN sleep erratically throughout the day because they are not able to match their circadian rhythms with the light-dark cycle. Most blind people maintain some ability to sense light and are able to modify their sleep/wake cycle.
The brain stem, at the base of the brain, communicates with the hypothalamus to control the transitions between wake and sleep. (The brain stem includes structures called the pons, medulla, and midbrain.) Sleep-promoting cells within the hypothalamus and the brain stem produce a brain chemical called GABA, which acts to reduce the activity of arousal centers in the hypothalamus and the brain stem. The brain stem (especially the pons and medulla) also plays a special role in REM sleep; it sends signals to relax muscles essential for body posture and limb movements, so that we don’t act out our dreams.
The thalamus acts as a relay for information from the senses to the cerebral cortex (the covering of the brain that interprets and processes information from short- to long-term memory). During most stages of sleep, the thalamus becomes quiet, letting you tune out the external world. But during REM sleep, the thalamus is active, sending the cortex images, sounds, and other sensations that fill our dreams.
The pineal gland, located within the brain’s two hemispheres, receives signals from the SCN and increases production of the hormone melatonin, which helps put you to sleep once the lights go down. People who have lost their sight and cannot coordinate their natural wake-sleep cycle using natural light can stabilize their sleep patterns by taking small amounts of melatonin at the same time each day. Scientists believe that peaks and valleys of melatonin over time are important for matching the body’s circadian rhythm to the external cycle of light and darkness.
The basal forebrain, near the front and bottom of the brain, also promotes sleep and wakefulness, while part of the midbrain acts as an arousal system. Release of adenosine (a chemical by-product of cellular energy consumption) from cells in the basal forebrain and probably other regions supports your sleep drive. Caffeine counteracts sleepiness by blocking the actions of adenosine.
The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure involved in processing emotions, becomes increasingly active during REM sleep."
Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that a lack of sleep doesn't just make you tired, it can also have a damaging effect on your biology.
"Adults who sleep less than 7 hours each night are more likely to say they have had health problems, including heart attack, asthma, and depression.3 Some of these health problems raise the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. These health problems include:
- High blood pressure. During normal sleep, your blood pressure goes down. Having sleep problems means your blood pressure stays higher for a longer amount of time.4 High blood pressure is one of the leading risks for heart disease and stroke. About 75 million Americans—one in three adults—have high blood pressure.
- Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is a disease that causes sugar to build up in your blood, a condition that can damage your blood vessels. Some studies show that getting enough good sleep may help people improve blood sugar control.
- Obesity. Lack of sleep can lead to unhealthy weight gain. This is especially true for children and adolescents, who need more sleep than adults. Not getting enough sleep may affect a part of the brain that controls hunger."
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Which Sports are Best for a Good Night’s Sleep?
Now you see why it is so important to take sleep seriously and get the recommended seven hours of sleep (for adults), let's look at what the best exercises are for a peaceful slumber.
The best (and healthiest) way to guarantee yourself a restful night’s sleep is to keep active during the day and make sure you take some time to train properly – no matter how busy you are.
Of course, you don’t need to sign up to a marathon or start lifting the heaviest weights at the gym to tire yourself out.
According to an article from MayoClinic, doing between 20 and 30 minutes of exercise per day is enough to sleep well and stay in shape.
The best way to ensure a restful night is to work out 5 to 6 hours before you usually go to bed. If you exercise just before you plan on sleeping, your ability to fall asleep will suffer.
Remember to be careful when it comes to exercising, and remember that not every sport is suitable for the sleep pattern of yourself, your child or even your teenager.
Sleep is a process with the purpose of healing your body and relaxing the tension that builds up with physical activity.
At every training session, whether you’re focusing on resistance training, stretching, or aerobic and cardiovascular ability, your body suffers very minor injuries, and without sufficient time to recover, it will suffer even more during your next workout.
- The Two Types of Exercise
There are two types of sport: aerobic and anaerobic.
Aerobic activity is also known as cardio training and includes any sport that raises your heart rate and makes your breathing heavier for an extended period of time.
Some sports that come to mind are long-distance running, brisk walking, cycling and swimming.
Anaerobic exercises are usually short and intense as your body uses more oxygen than it can provide from breathing. Anaerobic sports include things like sprinting, yoga, Pilates and weightlifting.
The best kind of workouts to promote sleep and good general wellbeing are aerobic.
This sort of exercise has a positive effect on cognitive function as well as endurance.
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Aerobic sports such as long-distance running, swimming and boxing are known for raising the breathing rates of their athletes along with their heart rates.
Cardio works the heart and lungs, and during vigorous exercise, the rate of oxygen in the blood increases along with lung capacity.
So, to get the best night’s sleep you can, aim for aerobic sports which gently work your muscles so that you become physically and mentally relaxed enough to fall into a slumber.
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A Case Study
The National Sleep Foundation carries out vital research into the connections between mental health, stress, physical activity and other factors and sleep quality. Below is just one example of how exercise can prove positive on a person's sleep pattern:
"Nathan, a 40-year-old lawyer, was referred to the sleep disorders center with the chief complaints of chronic fatigue and exhaustion. A routine workup for fatigue was negative.
History of Present Illness: Nathan reported a 10-year history of long working hours and lack of personal activities, such as exercise and vacation, in pursuit of a promising law career and hopes of making partner. During this time, Nathan had developed a habit of snacking to stay awake during late nights at work. Coupled with the lack of exercise, Nathan gradually gained 95 pounds. His current weight is 278 pounds (height = 69 inches; BMI = 41.05).
Nathan described increased fatigue throughout the previous 6 years. Recently, this has become “an embarrassment” as he occasionally falls asleep in important meetings. Nathan previously attempted to restart an exercise program but reports he simply lacked the energy. Friends describe him as “burned out.”
Medication History: Previous treatment with the stimulant Modafinil was not effective.
Social History: Single. Intensely focused on his career with no time for any other pursuits. Does not smoke or drink alcohol, except on rare social occasions. Nathan drinks at least 12 cups of coffee per day to stay awake.
Family History: Father snores heavily.
Review of Sleep Pattern: Nathan has a normal sleep schedule (11:30 PM – 7:00 AM) and reports he sleeps soundly. However, he arises from bed un-refreshed and occasionally awakens during the night gasping for air. Presence of snoring could not be confirmed by interview because Nathan sleeps alone and has no recent bed partners.
Evaluation and Diagnosis: Nathan spent a night in a sleep lab. He fell asleep almost instantly and slept soundly for about 3.5 hours. However, his AHI was 49 with O2 saturation frequently dipping into the low 80s.
Treatment and Follow-up: Nathan was prescribed nightly CPAP at 13 cm H2O. Within one week he had regained much of his former mental sharpness and physical energy. However, his nostrils and his throat felt excessively dry the morning following CPAP use. Although an added heated humidifier helped alleviated some discomfort, Nathan never became entirely comfortable with CPAP treatment. Despite his discomfort, he continued to use it nightly. His regained energy allowed him to begin an intensive weight loss program through diet and exercise."
How a Personal Trainer Can Help You
Launching yourself into a completely new sport or fitness program is never easy, nor is it very motivating to train alone.
If you want to see tangible results in the shortest possible length of time and need some support with the bigger lifestyle changes that go with your training, the best thing to do is call on the help of a personal fitness trainer - an accredited and certified fitness professional with a personal training certification who can apply their knowledge of exercise science to get you the results you're after.
In order to become a personal trainer, each athlete has to sit tough written and practical exams on various topics such as biomechanics, sports conditioning, exercise physiology, kinesiology, corrective exercise and creating fitness programs to receive their personal trainer certification and begin their fitness career, so you can rest assured you're in safe hands!
Usually, following your first meeting and fitness assessment with your private fitness coach, the program design process will begin, as they take your physiology, body composition, health and fitness goals and needs into account to provide you with a tailored training plan.
They will also ask you about your current lifestyle to get you on track to a healthier one. This could include questions about your eating habits, level of activity during the day, and of course your sleep.
At each fo your personal training sessions, you’ll be supervised and motivated by your personal trainer, as they keep an eye on your form, training techniques and how difficult you’re finding the programme, so they can make any adjustments if necessary.
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Another benefit of personal fitness training is that your progress is tracked, so you can see how far you’ve come once you finish your private training programme -whether you are aiming for weight loss or just want to live a healthier life.
And if you’re uncertain about anything, your one to one trainer is there to answer questions to make sure you feel relaxed and in-control – and this is what differentiates personal training from training alone at the gym.
Your self-esteem plays a major role in your success, and a home or online personal trainer motivates you to focus on your strengths and only grow in confidence so that you have no trouble attending gyms in the future – which is not necessarily the case for those who go it alone.
Of course, hiring a personal fitness instructor costs money, but don't avoid it as a money-making scheme by the fitness industry – it’s a rewarding investment in yourself!
The benefits you’ll feel, such as feeling more energised, healthy and happier, and sleeping better, far outweigh the financial aspect of personal training.
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1-Month Exercise Challenge
Let us challenge you! Now that we know the significant benefits to exercise in order to sleep better, why not discover this for yourself by completing this one-month sleep challenge for all levels of fitness (but mainly those who lack in physical activity during their day to day lives for one reason or another).
- Week 1: Do 20 minutes of exercise 3 x a week during this initial stage
- Week 2: Increase the length of time of each workout to 40 minutes
- Week 3: Increase the sessions once more to 1 hour (this can be cardio, yoga, pilates, etc...)
- Week 4: Increase the intensity of your workouts (i.e. lift heavier weights, hold each position for 5 seconds more, etc...)
As little as 20 to 30 minutes of exercise completed over a few days a week is enough to improve your sleep, so you should begin to notice an improvement to your energy levels within the first seven days. The more exercise you do and the more intense the sessions, the better the sleep.
So, if you have the means, go for it! And let us know how you get on!
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