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If You're Desperate for Deeper Sleep, Taking More Walks Might Help

Real Simple logo Real Simple 1/6/2020 Maggie Seaver

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A study published in Sleep Health suggests that adding a few more steps to your day could improve the quality of your sleep.

The idea that exercise and sleep are somehow correlated may not be shocking news to you, but the benefits of exercise on sleep don’t just apply to gym rats, athletes, and marathon runners. You may have resigned yourself to a life of mediocre sleep, knowing you don't follow a vigorous fitness routine. But this is simply not true! Even a small increase in the number of steps you take each day—try the stairs, get off the train a stop earlier, take a quick walk around the block—could make nightly snoozes more restful. And here’s the science to back it up.

A study by researchers at the Brandeis University Psychology Department, published in the National Sleep Foundation journal Sleep Health, shows promising evidence that physical activity, even low-impact exercise as commonplace as walking, can help improve an individual’s quality of sleep. And results were particularly notable in women who joined the study.

To find out if low-impact physical activity, like walking, positively affects sleep in healthy adults, researchers observed 59 participants over a four-week period. During this time, each individual participated in an intervention "aimed at increasing [their] daily steps as the primary outcome." (Here, intervention refers to a systemic change in conditions, implemented by the researchers, to gauge its physiological effects on participants—aka how changing/increasing physical activity relates to sleep.) Researchers measured participants’ increased daily activity with a Fitbit Zip, concurrently analyzing their sleep quality (self-reported before, during, and after the study).

According to the research results and conclusion, more activity was consistently linked to deeper Zs for participants:

"Averaged across the month, daily active minutes were positively related to sleep quality but not duration... [O]n days that participants were more active than average, they reported better sleep quality and duration in both sexes. Results suggest that low-impact [physical activity] is positively related to sleep, more so in women than men."

a person sitting on a sidewalk © Mikael Vaisanen/Getty Images

Per The New York Times interview with Alycia Sullivan Bisson, a graduate student and member of the research team at Brandeis University, the so-called increased activity linked to better sleep was far less intimidating than you might be thinking: "The average step count among the 59 volunteers was about 7,000 per day, which is a little more than three miles a day of walking."

While this was an observational study, and therefore does not prove a direct, causal link (yet), these positive correlations between increased daily movement and better sleep suggest that even a slight boost in activity could reward you with life-changing results. That sounds hyperbolic, but sufficient sleep (and exercise, for that matter) is a non-negotiable foundation of physical, mental, and emotional health. Not only are the long-term effects of sleep deprivation both prevalent and alarming, but a less-than-seven-hour snooze can cause next-day side effects that range from from a nuisance (decreased focus at work) to fatal (falling asleep at the wheel). So, even if it's just to quit feeling exhausted all the time, why wouldn’t you take a walk (or march in place, or dance around the living room) in an effort to catch more sweet, sweet Zs?

Slideshow: 15 things that make it harder to sleep as you get older (Cheapism) 

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