Physical exercise and sleep: what is the relationship?

24 September 2020

Physical exercise and sleep: what is the relationship?

Physical exercise and sleep: what is the relationship?

It’s already more than proven that sleep is a fundamental element for the health of any person. The restorative capacity of a good night's sleep is reflected in the physical and mental capacities, contributing a lot to the strengthening of the immune system.

A maxim prevailed for a long time that indicated 8 hours of sleep per night as being the ideal time for a rest. However, it’s now known that the duration of sleep varies according to the age group, regressing with advancing age. During the first month of life, for example, a baby sleeps an average of 14 hours a day and after 6 months this average drops to 12h. Although there is no consensus in the literature about the recommended sleep time per night, many studies point to between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, being an adult and up to 6 hours, when we talk about the elderly.

However, the data released by the Portuguese Society of Pulmonology and the Portuguese Society of Medicine*, in a study conducted this year (2020) with adults over the age of 25, indicates that the quality of sleep among Portuguese people is very compromising: 50% of respondents assumed sleeping only 6 hours or less and 32% assumed having a “bad sleep”.

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The relationship between physical exercise and sleep quality has been shown in recent studies. Some currents argue that the improvement in sleep quality from regular physical exercise is due to the organic need to try to re-establish a positive energy balance. Another hypothesis is related to thermo-regulatory issues, where the increase in body temperature, resulting from physical exercise, would facilitate the triggering of heat dissipation and sleep induction mechanisms.

Hormonal issues also appear as important aspects when analysing the binomial physical exercise and sleep. Endorphins, better known as our “natural painkiller”, and serotonin have their potential boosted when we exercise. These hormones have the power, among other benefits, to control anxiety and reduce stress, thus favouring the outlook for a more relaxing and well-slept night. Recent studies also point to the capacity of physical exercise to increase the activity of peripheral sympathetic neurons and norepinephrine, thus contributing to the synthesis of melatonin, also known as "sleep hormone".

It seems unanimous in the scientific bosom the existence of the benefits for a balanced sleep arising from the regular practice of physical exercise. On the other hand, it’s important to note that each organism has its own specificities, which can generate different responses to physical exercise. Recognizing this individual biological principle is, therefore, fundamental to adjust the volume and intensity of the training, as well as the choice of the best time to carry out the training. Regarding the training schedule, there are even some objections to the performance of very intense and / or prolonged training close to bedtime, under the risk of interfering negatively with a stable sleep pattern.

Thus, it’s recommended to look for a certified physical exercise professional, in order to be able to conduct the entire training process in the most individual and safe way possible. Without forgetting that for a healthy sleep, in addition to well-administered regular physical exercise, other variables such as food, tobacco, alcohol, excessive screen viewing (especially at night) appear as crucial elements.

Good training and… sweet dreams!

By Gustavo Levy, Personal Trainer at Academia Bodylab

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