Lunchtime Walk
UNM Health Sciences Center employees take time for some exercise during their lunch breaks.
Credit: Rebecca Gustaf

Feeling run-down and tired this holiday season? A simple walk may help, sleep experts say.

A recent National Sleep Foundation poll shows a compelling association between exercise and better sleep.

"Exercise is great for sleep. For the millions of people who want better sleep, exercise may help," says Dr. Lee Brown, medical director of the UNM Hospitals Sleep Disorders Clinic.

Self-described exercisers report better sleep than self-described non-exercisers even though they say they sleep the same amount – about seven hours – each weeknight. And any kind of exercise – from light, moderate or vigorous – seems to help.  More than 75 percent of exercisers described their recent sleep quality as very good or fairly good compared to slightly more than one-half of non-exercisers.

"If you are inactive, adding a 10 minute walk every day could improve your likelihood of a good night's sleep- and that is never more important than during the holidays when people are inclined to move less as they adjust to the cold temperatures and shorter days,” says Brown.

And more is better.

Vigorous exercisers are almost twice as likely as non-exercisers to report "I had a good night's sleep" every night or almost every night during the week. According to the National Sleep Foundation, they are also less likely to suffer from sleep apnea – a serious medical condition in which a person stops breathing during sleep. Symptoms often include tiredness, snoring and high blood pressure. It also increases the risk for heart disease and stroke.

Data suggests that the risk of sleep apnea in exercisers is half that of non-exercisers.  And since people with sleep apnea are often overweight, exercise can be part of the treatment.

Sleepiness also interferes with many non-exercisers' safety and quality of life. One in seven non-exercisers report having trouble staying awake while driving, eating or engaging in social activity at least once a week in the past two weeks, almost three times the rate of those who exercise.

"Sometimes we might feel tired, and that's normal," says Brown.  "But if excessive sleepiness is your normal state, it warrants a conversation with your doctor. It could be a red flag that something is wrong with your health."