The advice to get more physical activity to see major benefits like better sleep might make you think you need a big-time boost, like doubling your daily step count to 20,000 steps. But research indicates it takes fewer steps than you might think.
A study published in Sleep Health involved 59 participants with an average age of 50 who increased their walking by a modest amount over four weeks. Those who took more steps reported sleeping better than those who were less active.
Although the extra walking didn’t change how long they slept, it did have a significant impact on the quality of their sleep, according to that study’s lead author, Margie Lachman, PhD, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University.
“These results suggest that low-impact physical activity is associated with better sleep overall, and that’s especially true with women compared to men,” she says.
In terms of why exercise is such a sleep booster, the mechanism isn’t fully understood yet, according to Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep and Wellness.
However, she says, research indicates regular exercise increases the amount of slow-wave sleep, the type of deep sleep that allows your body and brain to do repairs. That creates better quality sleep that can reduce daytime fatigue and help you feel more refreshed and energetic. Plus, it works quickly — get more steps today, and you’ll likely sleep better tonight.
“It’s not going to take months or years to see a benefit,” says Gamaldo. “You don’t need to feel like you have to train for a marathon to become a better sleeper.”
Focusing on increasing your activity to improve sleep is helpful, but that’s just one of many benefits that can come from exercise, Lachman notes, including physical and psychological well-being, especially as you age. Yet, activity tends to be underutilized, she believes.
That doesn’t even mean exercise — the kind where you set aside a block of time and do a cardio or strength workout. Lachman says just increasing everyday activity like walking more is also lacking for many people, especially those who are older.
“Physical activity is one of the most promising nonpharmacological, noninvasive and cost-effective methods of promoting your health,” she says. “Yet, statistics show that only a small percentage of middle-aged and older adults engage in the recommended amount of regular exercise.”
In addition to more quality sleep, previous research has shown walking can improve weight-loss efforts, balance, brain health, cardiovascular function, and other advantages.
If you’re not a fan of walking or can’t fit extra steps into your day, good news: Studies have shown other low-intensity activities can count toward the recommended goal of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity weekly.
Even if you’re only doing a few minutes at a time of moving more — washing the dishes, cleaning the house, doing some gardening, throwing in a few yoga stretches as part of work breaks — it all adds up and can improve those health markers and your sleep as a result.
For example, a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at a group of just over 1,500 men who first supplied health and behavior information in the late 1970s and then again in 2016. Researchers examined the connections between sedentary behavior, different intensities of physical activity, and risk of early mortality.
There was an association between being sedentary and being more likely to die at a younger age than other participants in the study. But when it came to physical activity intensity, there wasn’t much difference, according to study co-author Dr. I-Min Lee, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Those in the study who achieved their 150 minutes of activity in bouts lasting longer than 10 minutes weren’t significantly better off than those who got to that 150 through much shorter amounts of time.
“Basically, all activity is helpful,” she says. “Previous activity guidelines required a 10-minute minimum of intense exercise, but new scientific evidence, such as this study, indicates all activity counts.”
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