Despite the known links between poor sleep and poorer health, getting adequate, good quality sleep has become a luxury in modern society.

Many of us struggle to improve our sleep while amid the COVID pandemic and recurring lockdowns, our sleep has worsened.

But a new study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, by Bo-Huei Huang and Emmanuel Stamatakis brings some encouraging news.

The study found that getting enough physical activity (including exercise like running or going to the gym) can counteract some of the negative health effects of unhealthy sleep patterns.

Let’s explain.


Does Bad Sleep Really Harm Our Health?

Unhealthy sleep patterns include:

  • not sleeping long enough (less than seven hours a night for adults)

  • sleeping too long (more than nine hours a night for adults)

  • snoring

  • insomnia

  • be a night owl, also known as a “late chronotype”. These are people who by nature feel most alert and motivated in the evening and sluggish in the morning.

you are all connected in poor health.

Recent research shows that poor sleep:

However, very few studies have looked at how sleep and physical activity interact and affect our health.

The study was intended to answer the question, if I sleep poorly but exercise a lot, can it offset some of the damage to my poor sleep in the long run? Or wouldn’t that make a difference?

Huang and Stamatakis analyzed the information from 380,055 middle-aged adults in the UK Biobank study recruited between 2006 and 2010. Participants reported their physical activity level and five aspects of their sleep.

They divided people into healthy, medium or poor based on their sleep behavior.

They categorized people’s physical activity level the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO). Individuals who met the guidelines’ upper limits did 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, or 150 minutes of vigorous exercise, or a combination of both. Those who hit the lower limit did 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, or a combination.

Moderate intensity physical activity usually makes you breathless easily if held for a few minutes, and includes brisk walking or cycling at a leisurely pace.

Vigorous exercise usually makes you breathless and can include running, swimming, and sports like tennis, netball, soccer, or football.

What the study found

They followed the participants after 11 years. By May 2020, 15,503 participants had died, of which 4,095 from heart disease and 9,064 from cancer.

they found that people who sleep poorly had a 23 percent higher risk of premature death, a 39 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease, and a 13 percent higher risk of dying from cancer compared to healthy sleepers.


We then compared the data of people who slept well with those who slept poorly and how much they did exercise. We found that people at the highest risk of dying from heart disease and cancer were those who had slept poorly and who did not meet WHO guidelines for physical activity. On the flip side, those who slept poorly but did enough physical activity to meet WHO guidelines had a lower risk of dying from heart disease or cancer than those who slept poorly and did not comply with the physical activity guidelines.

For example, let’s look at the risk of dying from cancer. Those who slept poorly and did not exercise were 45 percent more likely to die from cancer than those who slept soundly and exercised a lot. But among those who met physical activity guidelines, they didn’t really have a higher risk of dying from cancer despite poor sleep.

We found that physical activity that reached at least the lower threshold of WHO guidelines could reduce or eliminate some of the damage to health from poor sleep. Thus, people who exercised at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of high intensity exercise per week were to some extent protected from the harmful health effects of poor sleep.

Those who slept poorly and had no moderate-to-high intensity physical activity were at the highest risk of premature death.

This particular study was not designed to find out how and why physical activity can counteract some of the ill physiological effects of poor sleep. But other research provides theories. Sufficient physical activity can e.g. reduce inflammation, contribute to a healthy glucose metabolism, and Increase the number of calories burned.

It is important to note that this study is what is known as an “observational study”. It shows a link between adequate physical activity and reduced damage from poor sleep, but we need to be careful about interpreting causality. Sufficient physical activity cannot be conclusively stated causes reducing the damage from poor sleep, although there is strong evidence of an association in the right direction.

It offers a hopeful message that even if you haven’t been able to improve your sleep, you can offset some of the damage to your health by getting enough exercise. Previous research has also shown that physical activity can help improve poor sleep patterns, which are a serious health problem around the world.

In addition to combating some of the negative effects of poor sleep, physical activity can also provide many other health benefits and extend our lives. For example, a 2019 study found that people met the WHO physical activity goal mentioned above lived three years longer on average than those who didn’t.

During the closure, access to parks, gyms and swimming pools may be restricted in many places. But there are still many options to stay fit and active at home during the coronavirus.

Written by Bo-Huei Huang (PhD student, University of Sydney) and Emmanuel Stamatakis (Professor of Physical Activity, Lifestyle and Population Health, University of Sydney) This article was republished by The conversation under a Creative Commons license. read this original article.

Jennifer Lopez / Kim Kardashian / Ellie Goulding

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