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New research shows that people who maintain good cardiorespiratory fitness are less likely to use prescription sleep aids. Justin Paget/Getty Images
  • A recent study suggests that people who are physically fit are less likely to need prescription sleep aids.
  • The findings show that moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise for 75 minutes per week maintains good cardiorespiratory fitness and promotes optimal sleep.
  • To improve sleep hygiene, experts say 30 minutes of daily exercise could be beneficial for some people.
  • Having a consistent exercise routine may matter more than what time of day you exercise.

If you have difficulty sleeping, you’re not alone. In fact, 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep.

A lack of quality sleep can negatively affect your ability to function on a daily basis. That’s why many people who have insomnia may turn to sleeping pills to get some much-needed shuteye.

But according to a recent study from Norwegian researchers, there is another solution for insomnia that may reduce the need for sleep aids: cardiovascular fitness.

The research, recently published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, shows that people who maintain good cardiorespiratory fitness through regular bouts of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise are less likely to take prescription sleep aids.

“Exercise is closely related to cardiorespiratory fitness, but is not the same. Walking slowly with your dog for 1 hour is better than sitting for an hour, but it does not increase your fitness level,” study author Linda Ernstsen, RN, PhD, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Public Health and Nursing, told Healthline.

The prospective study estimated that cardiorespiratory fitness from a non-exercise — but validated algorithm — was associated with subjects’ first purchase of prescribed drugs for sleep problems.

Researchers linked data for just over 30,000 adult participants to the Norwegian Prescription Database.

“In Norway, each citizen is given a personal ID code that makes it possible to link data from different registries to population-based studies,” Ernstsen explained.

“What is unique about our study compared to the majority of population-based studies on sleep problems is that we do not use self-reported sleep symptoms as the outcome, but prescribed drugs for sleeping problems.”

And while most sleep studies focus on the general benefits of physical activity, Ernstsen’s study focused on the effects of cardiorespiratory fitness.

“Cardiorespiratory fitness reflects your cardiovascular health and the supply of oxygen throughout your body, and to increase (or maintain) your fitness level a moderate or vigorous intensity of physical activity is required (70–85% of maximum heart rate) for 75 minutes a week,” Ernstsen said.

Indeed, the findings show that consistent moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise lowers the risk of severe sleep problems. Participants who maintained good cardiorespiratory fitness were less likely to seek medical treatment for sleep issues.

Good sleep hygiene is crucial for health and well-being.

But when it comes to exercising in the morning versus evening to promote good sleep hygiene, there’s no consensus about which time of day is better.

“Some people find that morning exercise helps them feel more alert and awake during the day, while others find that evening exercise helps them relax and unwind after a long day,” Lalitha McSorley, a physiotherapist with Brentwood Physiotherapy Clinic in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

“Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to experiment with different times of day to see what works best for them.”

Morning exercise

According to McSorley, exercising first thing in the morning can help shift your body’s natural circadian rhythm so that you’re more alert in the morning and thus more tired at night.

While this shift in your body’s sleep-wake rhythm could make it easier to fall asleep, McSorley added that it doesn’t play much of a role in the quality of sleep.

Still, morning exercise seems to have a protective effect on cardiovascular events like stroke, Ernstsen added.

Evening exercise

Some research suggests that exercising in the evening may interfere with restful sleep.

For instance, a 2019 meta-analysis shows that exercising before bed could disrupt sleep versus promote it.

“Traditional sleep hygiene says that intensive exercise during the 3-hour period leading up to sleep negatively impacts sleep (increases your heart rate, body temperature, and adrenaline levels),” Ernstsen explained.

Be that as it may, many people find that exercising in the evening helps them wind down. Others may find that evening exercise is the only time their schedule will accommodate.

When it comes to how much physical activity you need to sleep better, consistency may ultimately matter more than the time of day you exercise.

“While there is some data to suggest that exercise in the AM is better for sleep — it is quite clear that a consistent pattern of regular exercise (either AM or PM) benefits sleep the most,” Dr. Thomas Eiseman, vice president of clinical affairs and associate medical director for Medcor in McHenry, IL, told Healthline, adding that morning exercisers tend to be more consistent in their practice.

McSorley recommended aiming for at least 30 minutes of daily exercise to promote better sleep.

“It might not seem like a lot, [but] the majority of North America does not get 30 minutes of exercise every day. I’d suggest incorporating a mixture of cardiovascular exercising and strength training.”

A new study shows that maintaining cardiorespiratory fitness could improve sleep quality and quantity.

Engaging in moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise for 75 minutes a week was associated with a decreased risk of taking prescription sleeping aids.

Experts recommend exercising regularly to reap the benefits. About 30 minutes of movement each day may be enough to help some people sleep better.

Whether you exercise in the morning versus evening may depend on what allows you to maintain a consistent schedule.

And if exercising still isn’t enough to help you sleep at the end of the day, you may wish to talk with your doctor about natural and prescription sleep aids to help you decide what’s best for you.