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Can exercise help you get a good night’s sleep?

Exercising, good nutrition and quality sleep. These are the three key pillars that can lead to a healthy life. And as March 18th is World Sleep Day I thought it would be interesting to explore the pillar of sleep in a bit more detail in this blog.

We all know that a good night’s rest is important for our health and wellbeing, but can exercise help contribute to this restful sleep? Before we answer this question, let me share with you some valuable information from a friend of mine, Nicholas Holmes, who is a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist.

Nicholas explained that sleep can be broken down into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.

REM sleep occurs for about 20-25% of the night, and is characterised by electrical activation of the brain, very relaxed muscles and the body becoming immobile, and rapid eye movements as the eyes dart back and forth under closed eyelids. REM sleep provides energy to the brain and body and supports daytime performance. Dreams often occur during REM sleep, although they can occur at any stage.

NREM sleep occurs during the other 75% of the time and can be further broken down into four stages.

Stage 1: A light sleep, between being awake and falling asleep

Stage 2: This is the onset of sleep, when you start to become disengaged from your surroundings. Body temperature drops and breathing and heart rate become regular.

Stages 3 and 4: These are the deepest and most restorative stages of sleep. Known as 'delta sleep', stage 3 is a transition into stage 4, or 'true delta'. During these stages, blood pressure drops, breathing becomes slower, muscles are relaxed and receiving more blood supply, tissue growth and repair occurs, and hormones are released (including growth hormones, which is why growing teenagers need to sleep more).

Understanding these stages of sleep helps to explain why you can be in bed for many hours but still wake up unrefreshed. It is the quality of sleep that counts – which stages you reach.

Another important aspect of sleep is the circadian rhythm – basically your body clock. If you wake up and go to sleep at the same time each day, your body clock will adjust, and you will naturally want to drift off when the hour arrives and be ready to wake up when morning comes.

Why is this important? It goes back to something else Nick told me about that is vitally important for sleep - sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is the term used to describe good sleeping habits and can provide the path to good to quality sleep on a regular basis.

Here are some of Nick’s tips for good sleep hygiene:

Avoid caffeine and nicotine. It is best to avoid consuming any caffeine (in coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate and some medications) or nicotine (cigarettes) for at least 4-6 hours before going to bed. These substances act as stimulants and interfere with the ability to fall asleep.

Avoid alcohol. It is also best to avoid alcohol for at least 4-6 hours before going to bed. Many people believe that alcohol is relaxing and although it may help you get to sleep, it actually interrupts the quality of sleep. Alcohol interferes with REM sleep and emotional processing and memory.

Bed is for sleeping. Try not to use your bed for anything other than sleeping and sex so that you body comes to associate bed with sleep. If you use bed as a place to watch TV, eat, read, work on your laptop, scroll through social media, or anything else, your body will not learn this vital connection.

No naps: It is best to avoid taking naps during the day, to make sure that you are tired at bedtime. If you can’t make it through the day without a nap, make sure it is for less than an hour and before 3pm.

Sleep rituals. You can develop your own rituals of things to remind your body that it is time to sleep - some people find it useful to do relaxing stretches or breathing exercises for 15 minutes before bed each night, or to sit calmly with a cup of caffeine-free tea.

No clock-watching. Many people who struggle with sleep will watch the clock too much. Frequently checking the clock during the night can wake you up more (especially if you turn on the light to read the time) and reinforces negative thoughts such as "Oh no, look how late it is, I'll never get to sleep", or "It's too early, I have only slept for 5 hours, this is terrible."

Exercise. Regular exercise is a good idea to help with good sleep patterns, but try not to do strenuous exercise in the 4 hours before bedtime. Morning walks are a great way to start the day feeling refreshed!

Eat well. A healthy, balanced diet will help you to sleep well, but timing is important. Some people find that a very empty stomach at bedtime is distracting, so it can be useful to have a light snack before bed. But a heavy meal too soon before bed can interrupt sleep. Some people find a warm glass of milk helps them to fall asleep as it contains tryptophan which acts as a natural sleep inducer.

So what is the answer to the question I posed at the beginning? Can exercise contribute to a good night sleep? Well, based on what Nick has explained I believe it can. And while it is clear that there are many factors work together to ensure a good night's sleep, exercise is certainly one of them.

How is your sleep routine? If increased movement and exercise is what you need to help, but you have limitations that may restrict you, why not give us a call? We know how powerful exercise can be to your routine and we are here to help you achieve your goals.

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