It’s a medical fact that poor quality sleep can shave years off your life, so getting on top of this issue is really important.
There are numerous strategies available to improve sleep, from exercise and dietary changes to natural remedies and prescription drugs. However, they don’t work for everyone.
Are these poor sleepers condemned to a shorter life?
Fortunately, no. Researchers point to a simple daily exercise routine that can stave off the worst health damage of sleepless nights.
How are sleep and exercise connected? Well, poor sleep heightens the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, and early death. So does a lack of physical activity.
However, no one had ever thoroughly examined whether sleep and exercise work together to impact mortality, so researchers from the University of Sydney, Australia carried out a first-of-its-kind study.
Linking Sleep Quality and Exercise
The Australian team started with data from the U.K. Biobank which tracks the long-term health of adult volunteers.
The 380,055 participants in the study, average age 55, supplied information regarding the amount of moderate to vigorous exercise they perform in a week. The researchers then divided this into four categories: high, medium, low or zero.
The medium category is the amount the World Health Organization and the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends for adults. This translates into at least 150 minutes a week of moderate activity such as brisk walks—the easiest of all exercise in my opinion— or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity.
Sleep quality was rated zero (worst) to five (best) depending on the answers given to questions about sleep duration, insomnia, snoring and daytime sleepiness. Then researchers tracked illnesses and deaths among participants for the next eleven years. During this time there were 15,503 deaths.
What they found is not that surprising to those of us who have always touted the anti-aging benefits of sleep and exercise.
Lazy Insomniacs at Dramatically Greater Risk of Death
The Australian team found that the lower the sleep score the greater the risk of death from any cause, especially for every type of cardiovascular disease— including ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blockage cuts off the blood supply to the brain.
Let’s take a closer look at these numbers…
Researchers found when compared to participants in the high category for exercise and a five (best) for sleep quality, those with poor sleep and poor exercise habits had a risk of death that was 57 percent higher from any cause.
Their death risk was 67 percent higher from any type of cardiovascular disease and 45 percent higher from any type of cancer. Risk from lung cancer specifically was a whopping 91 percent higher.
Sleep and exercise, the researchers confirmed, act in synergy to protect human health against deadly disease. What’s more, low activity levels make the negative effects of poor sleep exponentially worse on all health outcomes apart from stroke (the reason stroke outcomes were unaffected was not identified.)
In other words, a 20 percent increased risk from less physical activity and a 30 percent increased risk from poor sleep doesn’t add up to raise the risk by 50 percent. It boosts the danger by 60 percent!
The good news is that this also works in the opposite direction.
A Win-Win All Round
Senior author, professor Emmanuel Stamatakis, explains, “…physical activity at levels equivalent to meeting the…WHO 2020 recommendations, seems to counteract most, if not all of the long-term risks of poor sleep.
“(This is a) very positive and a very optimistic message because although sleep is to a large extent beyond your control, there is something we can do to counter the health risks of (poor) sleep, so that’s one level of optimism, you could say, that our study provides.”
There’s another level of optimism which comes from previous research from Prof. Stamatakis’s group. They found that physical activity often improves sleep quality, and a better night’s sleep improves the chances of people taking up exercise.
“So there seems to be a fair amount of behavioral interaction between the two variables,” the professor added. “The main take-home for people is that physical activity is a win-win all round.”
The researchers concluded by suggesting that individuals with poor sleep focus on increasing their activity levels to a minimum of 150 minutes of brisk walking or 75 minutes of running or other vigorous aerobic acitivty every week.
Their research was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
It’s important to caution that this is an observational study and one that also relied on self-reported data, so these researchers can’t establish causality of the deaths that occurred during the study with 100 percent certainty.
However, these findings lend more credibility to advice to improve both your physical activity and sleep quality in your quest for a longer, healthier life. As for me, if you’re a long-time reader you know I’m a huge fan of walking for daily exercise. This study just increases my resolve to continue walking for better health.