It is generally reported that one-third of American adults complain of difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep. Sleep disorders can affect us at any age, and have been associated with physical illness, depression, anxiety or stress, the use of alcohol or other drugs, too much caffeine or heavy smoking.
However, two other factors linked to sleep problems are aging and lack of physical activity. As people age, they tend to become less active, and this can increase a person’s chance for developing sleep dysfunction, along with a number of other health problems including cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity and diabetes.
Many people turn to drugs, whether prescribed by their doctor or over-the-counter sleeping aids, to help them catch some ZZZs. But these come with side effects and can be habit-forming. And if you suffer from uncontrolled lung problems such as asthma or COPD, they can be downright dangerous, as they cause you to breathe more slowly and shallowly.
Luckily, there are plenty of non-drug alternatives that you can employ at any age to help you get to sleep and stay asleep. According to a new study in Lipids in Health and Disease, moderate exercise training improved sleep quality and the metabolic profile of elderly people with a sedentary lifestyle.
Researchers looked at a group of 14 elderly male volunteers (average age 70) who were sedentary but healthy, with no cardiovascular or other diseases that would interfere with the response to training or study results.
The men performed moderate exercise training bouts that consisted of running for 60 minutes a day, three days a week for 24 weeks. Data were collected one week before training began, and then after three months and six months of training. Researchers assessed the following:
1. Total sleep time (in minutes), defined as the actual time spent asleep
2. Sleep latency (in minutes), defined as the time from lights out until the onset of three consecutive epochs of stage 1 or deeper sleep
3. Sleep efficiency, defined as the percentage of total recording time spent asleep
4. Wake after sleep onset (in minutes), defined as the total time scored as wakefulness between sleep onset and final awakening
5. Stages 1, 2, 3, 4 and REM sleep, as percentages of total sleep time
6. Latency to REM, defined as the time from sleep onset until the first epoch of REM sleep.
To give you a crash course in the science of sleep, your body will cycle between non-REM (stages 1-4) and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. In general, the sleep cycle starts with a period of non-REM sleep followed by a very short period of REM sleep, which is when dreams typically occur. Stages 1-4 last about 5-15 minutes each, REM kicks in, and then the cycle starts over. Stages 3 and 4 are the deeper levels of sleep, and this is when the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and appears to strengthen the immune system.
The study authors noted that older adults tend to wake up more during the night and get less of that deep, regenerative sleep. They cited past studies that have shown that as people age, they experience increases in stage 1 and 2 sleep, decreases in stage 3-4 and REM sleep, more fragmented sleep, a decrease in total sleep time and sleep efficiency, and an increase in the incidence of sleep disturbances, such as apnea and insomnia.
And, as we mentioned above, another thing that tends to go hand in hand with aging is a sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to a number of serious health complications associated with metabolic dysfunction, which is really just an all-encompassing term that includes conditions such as increased blood pressure, elevated insulin levels, excess body fat around the waist or abnormal cholesterol levels. So, in addition to the list of sleep factors assessed above, researchers also collected data on the subjects’ metabolic profile at the same intervals (one week prior to beginning the program and three and six months in).
And Here’s What They Found …
Overall, their results showed that the moderate exercise training improved aerobic capacity, insulin resistance, metabolic profile and sleep quality in the participants. But there’s a catch: Their response was time-dependent.
After three months of exercise training, researchers found lowered levels of non ester fatty acid (NEFA), insulin and hormones related with insulin resistance. However, there were no changes in plasma concentration of glucose, total cholesterol levels, LDL cholesterol or HDL cholesterol. Additionally, the positive changes shown at three months in did not appear after six months of training. The authors said this may be due in part to the fact that they did not adjust the exercise intensity throughout the study.
As for sleep, subjects did show improvements in latency of REM and awake time, but these changes were observed only after six months of training, not three. But don’t let that discourage you. Authors did note that the volunteers in the study presented elevated sleep efficiency for their age (about 75%), so the effects of similar training may have a greater impact on elderly people who suffer from sleep problems.
Get Moving to Get to Sleep
So if you struggle with sleep, that is just one more reason you should be exercising – no matter what your age. Six months may seem like a long time, but you must consider that a commitment to a healthier lifestyle is just that – a commitment.
And as you age and your risk for developing chronic diseases increases, it is even more important that you remain physically active. If you can’t commit to an hour-long run, that’s fine. Start with a walk. If you suffer from joint pain, consider something even less intensive such as yoga or tai chi. The point is that exercise remains one of the best ways to fend off disease without subjecting your body to the harmful side effects of drugs.
As always, consult with your physician before making any changes regarding medications or physical activity.
 Lira, FS et al. Exercise training improves sleep pattern and metabolic profile in elderly people in a time-dependent manner. Lipids in Health and Disease. 2011, 10:113.