The Best Exercise for Sleep Is Not What You Think

Want to improve your sleep? Try pumping some iron in the gym.

Resistance exercise may be superior to aerobic workouts in terms of helping you sleep better, according to new research presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Conference 2022.

The study included nearly 400 adults who were considered overweight or obese and who were inactive. All had elevated blood pressure. Participants were divided into several groups, including one group that did not exercise and other groups that engaged in various types of activity for 12 months.

In a press release, study author Angelique Brellenthin, assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, says:

“Aerobic activity is often recommended to improve sleep, yet very little is known about the effects of resistance exercise versus aerobic exercise on sleep. … Our study is one of the largest and longest exercise trials in a general adult population to directly compare the effects of different types of exercise on multiple sleep parameters.”

More than one-third of all study participants had poor-quality sleep at the beginning of the study, with 42% not getting at least seven hours of sleep nightly. Among that 42% of participants, sleep duration increased the most — by an average of 40 minutes — for those assigned to the resistance exercise group. That compares with increases of 15 to 23 minutes for those assigned to the other three groups.

Sleep efficiency — a measurement determined by dividing the time one is actually asleep by the total amount of time the individual is in bed — improved in the resistance exercise and combined exercise groups, but not in the aerobic exercise or no-exercise groups.

Sleep latency — the amount of time it takes to fall asleep — decreased by a hair (three minutes) in the resistance exercise group, but it did not change at all for participants in the other groups.

“Resistance exercise significantly improved sleep duration and sleep efficiency, which are critical indicators of sleep quality that reflects how well a person falls asleep and stays asleep throughout the night,” Brellenthin says.

Based on the study results, she concludes that those struggling to sleep might consider incorporating resistance exercise training sessions into their regular workout routines, noting that doing so can “improve your general muscle and bone health, as well as your sleep.”

The study participants in the resistance exercise group used the following 12 types of resistance machines to work all the major muscle groups during each session:

  • Leg press
  • Chest press
  • Lat pulldown
  • Leg curl
  • Leg extension
  • Biceps curl
  • Triceps pushdown
  • Shoulder press
  • Abdominal crunch
  • Lower back extension
  • Torso rotation
  • Hip abduction

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