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Less Stress and Better Sleep, Thanks to Exercise

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You must have noticed this, when you have trouble falling asleep until late in the evening or when you think about the busyness of the next day. Conversely, you have certainly noticed that you are irritable when you have had a bad night's sleep. If this goes on for a while, it will send you into a negative spiral of chronic stress and insomnia. In fact, these processes have been linked to many other negative health conditions such as depression, cancer relapse, and early mortality.

Exercise seems to have a positive effect on both factors. We have made a systematic review and analysis on this from a doctoral research. This means that I analyzed and compared existing studies within a particular topic, in order to answer my main question that I wanted to find out — what impact exercise has on both stress and sleep quality.

Can You Exercise When You Are Stressed or Tired?

The studies I analyzed examined both healthy individuals and individuals with, for example, Alzheimer's disease, major depressive episodes or breast cancer. Overall, for each health category studied, exercise was found to be a true stress buffer and effective for better sleep.

It is striking that physical activity for stress and sleep problems has mainly been studied in women with breast cancer. It is true that worldwide breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, and that during or after radio or chemotherapy, people suffer from side effects such as increased stress or sleeping problems. Research shows that people with poor (mental) health, such as a depressive period during breast cancer treatment, seem to get the most benefits from exercise. This is also what Dr. Christel Fontaine, oncologist at the VUB believes. Furthermore, this ties in with the consensus that the benefits of exercise outweigh the risks.

Which Exercise Is Best for Stress Management and Sleep Hygiene?

There are many differences between individuals. Some people de-stress with any sport, while some only get relaxed with a quiet walk, but get completely stressed by a heavy cross-fit session.

Let us describe the exercise programs that most studies 'prescribed' for less stress and a better night's sleep, according to the frequency, intensity, time, type and duration (FITT-D) principles. Think of it as a list of choices, from which you can create a tailor-made program for exercise throughout the day.

Frequency: How often exercise was performed during the studies, which was 2 to 5 times a week.

Intensity: No matter how hard the exercises were, they usually exercised at a light to moderate intensity. Throughout the day, you can choose the training intensity that you feel comfortable with. If you want to relax in the evening, you can reduce the intensity a bit, such as during an evening walk. In the evenings we would recommend you to focus on mindful body movements based on breathing, such as yoga.

Time and type: The time and types of physical activities chosen were very diverse. There were studies where the subjects went for a 20-minute walk or a 40-minute walk or bike ride, or even received 90 minutes of yoga therapy. Although yoga interventions are our personal preference because they are so easy to incorporate into our daily lives, each exercise type studied had positive effects.

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Extensive: The intervention was maintained for 6 to 14 weeks. That was enough to obtain positive effects. Many studies show the benefits of exercise persist for several weeks after completion, but emphasize the need for regular exercise to maintain the long-term benefits.

If you can't choose well, we have already made two examples as 'exercise prescription' during a busy day and when you just don't feel like it anymore.

In summary, any type of exercise you enjoy, be it aerobic exercise, dance, resistance training, Thera-Band training, yoga, Qigong or Tai-Chi, can improve stress and sleep.


Is Exercising in Nature Really That Healthy?

While individual exercise is definitely good, most studies examined group exercise. It will come as no surprise that exercise with family, friends or acquaintances can have a positive effect on our stress level and general well-being.

In our own analysis, we have not found any studies that examined the effects of exercise in nature on stress (measured via the stress hormone cortisol) and sleep. But the beneficial effects of 'the great outdoors' should get an honorable mention when it comes to stress and sleep. A large study shows that green time is associated with not only more favorable stress levels and better sleep, but also with nearly a hundred other health factors such as better blood pressure, HDL cholesterol, control of type-2-diabetes and overall longer life.

When Is the Best Time to Exercise When I’m Stressed or Tired?

My favorite time to exercise is in the morning. In addition to the multifactorial benefits of exercise itself, morning exercise also has good effects on our internal clock — circadian rhythms are an internal process that regulates the wake and sleep cycles. These rhythms are regulated by external factors, such as daylight, eating patterns and exercise.

Of course, this again comes with the caveat of individual preference. Try it on yourself and see if it works for you. Try doing the exercise on different times of the day and check which time brings the best change on your mood and stress level. The general rule of thumb — every move counts — states that exercise always has positive effect, no matter what time of day.

Summary

  • Regular exercise, stress management and good quality sleep are essential for overall health.
  • Stress and sleep are interrelated and are each favorably influenced by physical activity.
  • Morning exercise in nature seems to be the most efficient, but any exercise, whenever or wherever, has been shown to be beneficial for managing stress and sleep.
  • People with poor mental health, for example during a depressive episode during breast cancer treatment, experience more benefits from exercise.

© 2022 Hamza Hussaini

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