The sleep-exercise connection

New research suggests that trading Ambien for activity may be the key to sound sleep.

Sleeplessness seems to be spreading. It's the topic of conversation among friends, at doctors' offices and in the mainstream media — a recent New York Times article questioning the proliferation of Lunesta, Ambien and the like has been creating significant buzz. But according to the most recent study on shut-eye, published in the December issue of the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, the dream treatment for those having trouble settling in between the sheets may be simple: exercise.

After sampling close to 3,000 people, researchers found that those who logged the recommended dose of cardio (150 minutes at a moderate intensity or 75 minutes at a vigorous effort each week) experienced a 65 percent improvement in the quality of their sleep compared to those who fell short. The exercise aficionados also reported feeling less groggy throughout the day and more focused even when they were feeling tired.

Though the exact physiological mechanism responsible for the sweat-to-sleep conversion is still up for debate, scientists speculate that the positive effect has something to do with the "temperature-down regulation" that follows exercise. The theory posits that the onset of sleep is prompted by a decline in body temperature, which results from heat dissipation through vasodilation — a natural result of exercise.

"It's similar to how taking a hot shower before bed helps you fall asleep," says Geralyn Coopersmith, exercise physiologist and Q advisory board member. "When you work out — especially when you work out hard — your body heats up. Then as you cool off there's a drop in temperature, which may help induce sleep."

It's a fairly easy fix, but if you're not quite hitting the cardio mark, don't despair — start gradually tacking on the time, and you should feel the effects of the change rather quickly. It's nothing to lose sleep over.