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Exercise and sleep

Regular exercise improves sleep quality but doesn’t make up for shortage of sleep.

It’s been commonly thought that exercise can ward off the effects of sleep loss, but it turns out that exercise only mitigates sleepiness and fatigue for an hour and doesn’t seem to have any effect on boosting performance throughout the day. Although regular exercise—both strength training and high-intensity endurance—does help you sleep better, it can’t replace lack of sleep—only actual sleep will do that. The loss of sleep affects physical performance primarily by reducing your motivation to exercise—so, when thinking about your workout plan for the week, include a plan to get enough sleep.

For information on how to improve the quality and length of your sleep, check out HPRC’s Mind Tactics Sleep Optimization section. For information on how sleep loss impacts other areas of fitness, check out the HPRC’s Total Force Fitness article The impact of sleep loss on total fitness, and for information on physical fitness check out HPRC’s Physical Fitness domain.

Sleep for total fitness

HPRC Fitness Arena: Total Force Fitness
One of the major factors Warfighters have to face in attempting to achieve total fitness is getting enough sleep to prevent dangerous fatigue, which can impact many aspects of fitness.

One thing all Warfighters need—and often don’t get enough of—is sleep. This essential restorative affects, and is affected by, virtually every aspect of total fitness. HPRC has already taken a look at the basics of sleep in “How Much Sleep Does a Warfighter Need?” Now we take a look at how it relates to mind tactics, stress management, relationships, exercise, nutrition, dietary supplements, and environment in a new review: “The impact of sleep on total fitness.” Insufficient sleep will make it difficult to concentrate, make decisions, solve problems, and cope with stress. It affects your relationships with others as well as your physical endurance. Exercise, nutrition, and environment—especially time zone changes—affect how well you sleep. Some dietary supplements may enable you to function with little sleep for a while, but in the long run they can’t substitute for a regular night’s sleep. Sleep significantly impacts ALL areas of Total Fitness and can greatly enhance or undermine your ability to be fit and resilient.

Physical activity can boost quality sleep

A new study suggests that exercising at least 150 minutes a week can help people sleep significantly better and feel more alert during the day.

Besides keeping you healthy and fit, exercise has another important benefit. According to a news release from Oregon State University, a study conducted on more than 2,600 men and women between ages 18 to 85 found that individuals who exercise for 150 minutes a week at a moderate to vigorous level experience a 65% improvement in sleep quality. In addition, active people experienced less daytime sleepiness than those who are inactive. These findings appeared to be across the board—subjects experienced better sleep regardless of age, weight, and other health habits. For many, regular physical activity can be an effective, non-pharmaceutical alternative to improving sleep and concentration levels during waking hours.

The study, which was published in the December 2011 issue of Mental Health and Physical Activity, adds more evidence to the amazing body of research that demonstrates the importance of exercise for overall health.

Could sleep be your single most important health habit?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Guest contributor Dr. Daniel Johnston of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness makes a case for why he thinks sleep is the most important health habit.

Have you ever had one of those days that never seemed to go well, from the minute you heard the alarm clock go off? Maybe you didn’t have time for breakfast, forgot your laptop at home, lost your temper when someone cut you off on your way to work, replied to an e-mail in a way you really wished you hadn’t, ate poorly all day, couldn't concentrate at work, and then couldn't find the energy to go the gym?

Ask yourself how you slept the night before. One factor that can contribute to bad days is lack of sleep. Not getting enough sleep is all too common in the military and across the country—it’s often looked at as the price you pay to get ahead. Some sacrifice sleep for social activities at night—web surfing, e-mailing, watching TV, playing video games, or one more drink out with buddies—which further worsens the issue.

Bottom line: Not getting enough sleep is pervasive throughout all ranks and has major negative impact on your health, relationships, and career. The effects of sleep loss affect performance in much the same way that alcohol intoxication does. So coming to work deprived of sleep is rather like coming to work drunk. Your interactions with others and your job performance suffer—which has a huge impact on safety. Losing sleep isn’t sustainable for the long run.

But the damage doesn’t stop there. In fact, sleep loss has a ripple effect throughout virtually every aspect of health and wellness, including your physical, emotional, social, family, and spiritual well-being (see the five program components of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness here). It increases your risk of disease and harms your social relationships and possibly your professional reputation.

Sleep deprivation can be a byproduct of mission demands, of course. In the military, sleep loss is sometimes used on the battlefield as a weapon, wearing the enemy down through non-stop engagement. The problem is that this strategy affects our own Warfighters, too. Senior leaders are cautious in employing this tactic, and it’s used only for specific, organized, orchestrated periods of time, allowing for a full rest and recovery before massive errors occur that can cost lives.

Where many of us go wrong is thinking this type of sleep schedule is normal and maintaining it post-deployment. Most people aren’t able to tell when their state of mind—alertness, mood, concentration—has been compromised by lack of sleep until gross errors are made.

I believe sleep is the single most vital wellness function we do every single 24-hour period, and yet it requires no treadmills, no weights to be lifted, no personal trainers, and not even special clothes. It has dramatic implications for your entire body and sets you up for optimization everywhere else. Sleep is commonly overlooked at the doctor's office because physicians (including myself) don't understand exactly how it works, and in fact, there is no standardized medical test to see if you are getting enough sleep. But that’s no reason to ignore the health treasures afforded to those who get a great night's sleep on a regular basis.

On average, we spend 20-25 years of our lives sleeping, and five to seven of those are spent the critical dream periods known as "Rapid Eye Movement." REM periods occur at regular intervals throughout a night of good rest (when not impaired by alcohol, caffeine, or other drugs). Unfortunately, many of us look at this time as wasted, yet it can be some of the most glorious "unconscious" time to improve our health!

During REM periods, your brainwave patterns register signals much like those produced when you are awake and concentrating. During sleep you also secrete hormones that repair tissue and renew microscopic damages to cells and organs before they develop into bigger problems. In fact, you actually concentrate and focus for several hours throughout a good night's rest as you repair your body! Your brain, the center of all health, is exercising while you lie quietly in dreamland! When you destroy the quality of your REM sleep, the result is poor performance, inattention, obesity, hormonal imbalances, poor appetite, lack of normal growth, high blood pressure, poor interpersonal skills, no energy for the gym, possibly diabetes, and more.

Getting enough sleep means you are more likely to live longer, experience less disease, retain information better, perform better, and get more out of your workouts. You will be more patient with others, less demanding and prone to anger, and able to optimize all aspects of human performance, including your family relationships. For more about getting enough sleep, visit the HPRC’s Sleep Optimization page. Don't overlook the simplicity of a good night's rest.

Strategically time your exercise to optimize sleep

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Exercising before bed could keep you up at night. To optimize your sleep, avoid exercising within three hours of bedtime.

Although regular exercise can improve sleep (see this HPRC article), your workout time may be putting you in a less-than-ideal state for a good night’s rest. Exercise not only makes you more alert but also raises your body temperature, both of which can make falling and staying asleep more difficult. To create healthy sleep habits, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends that you finish your workout at least three hours before you go to bed. View more healthy sleep tips on the NSF website.

Overcoming jet lag without medications

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Jet lag can be a drag to get over, but you can prepare yourself with some simple actions to help you deal with this common annoyance.

If you’ve ever switched times zones, even as little as one hour, you may be aware that it can disturb your sleep and even disorient you in the following days. Without taking any medicinal countermeasures, you can typically adapt to your new time zone with about one hour of extra sleep per day after arrival (depending on with direction you’re traveling). However, some operations require that you be able to perform within 24 hours of arrival. To better prepare and adjust to your new time zone, use these strategies:

  • One week before you travel, adjust your sleep schedule about one hour per night towards the time zone you are flying in—i.e., if flying eastward, go to bed and get up earlier; if flying westward, sleep later.
  • Before you take off and while on the aircraft, eat light snacks, avoid alcohol, and stay hydrated (with water).
  • On the aircraft, make sure that you are comfortable and able to nap before you arrive at your destination.
  • Setting your watch to your new time zone as soon as you board your flight will help you transition.
  • Take a short nap when you arrive at your new location, if you’re able to do so.

For more information, read the sections on jet lag in this article on sleep rhythms.

The ideal nap length?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Didn’t get enough sleep last night? Learn how to nap so your mind can perform at its best.

Misinformation abounds regarding ideal nap lengths for optimal cognitive performance. You need sleep to function at your best. If you do not get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night, then napping can help. Learn more in HPRC’s Answer, “Nap to be at Your Best Mentally.”

Sleep as a child is linked to body weight as an adult

HPRC Fitness Arena: Family & Relationships
Children under age 11 who don't get enough sleep are more likely to become overweight as adults.

The amount of sleep a person gets prior to the age of 11 has been associated with adult body weight.  A 2008 study in the Journal of Pediatrics of 1037 individuals found that shorter sleep times at age 5, 7, 9, and 11 were associated with higher Body Mass Index (BMI) at age 32. This relationship does not depend on BMI as a child, socioeconomic status, TV watching, adult physical activity and smoking, and BMI of a person’s parents.

New Army resilience training program targets NCOs and spouses

HPRC Fitness Arena:
The two-week Soldier 360° resilience training program for Warfighters and their spouses is being implemented by the Army with a focus on NCOs.

Soldier 360° is a resilience program being implemented by the Army for Warfighters who have combat experience and their families. In fact, Warfighters take the second half of the two-week class with their spouses, while childcare is provided for those who need it. It’s aimed at non-commissioned officers who are nominated by their commanders. The course provides Warfighters with information and strategies on stress management, anger management, relaxation, health, communication, conflict resolution, nutrition, sleep, combat stress, and management of non-optimal behaviors. It also teaches physical fitness, yoga, meditation, conditioning, injury prevention, and pain management. The program combines financial counseling with Military and Family Life Consultant Program counselors, acupuncturists, physicians, and a myriad of others. Read another article from Army.mil for more information.

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Get 7-8 hours of sleep to perform daily tasks efficiently

HPRC Fitness Arena:
More than one-third of adults in the U.S. Don't get enough sleep, and getting less than 7 hours will impact even your everyday tasks.

According to a recent article in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the National Sleep Foundation reported that more than one-third of adults in the United States are not sleeping enough, and inadequate sleep impairs daily tasks. Compared to those who reported sleeping 7-8 hours regularly, those who slept less than 7 hours reported significantly more trouble performing the daily tasks such as:

  • Ability to concentrate
  • Memory
  • Working on a hobby
  • Driving or taking public transport
  • Taking care of financial matters
  • Performing at work.
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