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Want to Sleep Better? Take More Steps

The amount that you move is directly tied to how well you sleep.

Key points

  • Increasing your levels of physical activity can improve the quality of your sleep.
  • Midlife women, who may experience sleep challenges due to hormonal shifts, may sleep longer and better when they increase daily activity.
  • Aiming for a higher daily step count may help your body sleep more efficiently and decrease the likelihood that you’ll wake up during the night.
Source: Stocksnap/Pixabay
Source: Stocksnap/Pixabay

I’ve had trouble sleeping since 2013. That was a very difficult year. A series of traumatic experiences made it much harder than usual for my brain and body to fall asleep and stay asleep.

As life improved, and I got support to help me heal from the things that had happened, my sleep got better. It never went back to “normal," though. Midlife hormonal shifts likely contributed as well.

In 2021, I got an Apple Watch. I thought it would be handy to have but never imagined how much I’d learn about my physiology, especially sleep. I quickly discovered an app called SleepWatch, which I’ve used daily for almost two years.

I learned two main things about my sleep: 1) alcohol decimates it and 2) exercise is everything.

My watch tracks my daily caloric expenditure related to movement, as well as my daily step count. Both have a direct impact on my sleep.

The more I move, the better my sleep gets. Since insomnia and poor sleep are deeply frustrating and stressful, it’s empowering to know that something as simple as getting 10,000 steps can make a significant difference.

Studies support my experience. A paper published in 2019 in Sleep Health, aptly titled “Walk to a Better Night of Sleep: Testing the Relationship Between Physical Activity and Sleep,” found that daily active minutes were related to sleep quality. On days that people were more active than average, both genders reported better sleep quality and duration (this is my experience as well). Women who took more steps and were more active slept better than those who were less active.

An earlier paper in Sleep Health, published in 2016, looked specifically at the relationship between daily physical activity and sleep in midlife women. They found that as activity levels increased, so did “total sleep time.”

That’s what I struggle with the most these days. I’m much better at falling asleep and staying asleep, but my brain and body find it difficult to get eight hours. On those rare days after a full night’s sleep, I wake feeling like I can take on the world. And yes, I probably did something really physical the day before.

Another study, published in 2020 in PLoS One, highlighted a very important point about both physical inactivity and sleep disturbances: they both are “major problems in an aging society.” How wonderful, then, that being active can help us to sleep better as we age. These Japanese researchers found that the number of daily walking steps showed a positive correlation with sleep efficiency, and an inverse correlation with time spent awake after initially falling asleep.

There are all kinds of mental and physical health benefits to staying active and getting lots of steps every day. And we can add better sleep to the list. Writing this post has helped me to strengthen my determination to move more and sleep better every day. I hope you’ll join me in that commitment.

More from Susan Biali Haas M.D.
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