How I Found My Way, Kicking & Screaming, to Sounder Sleep

I was never a couch potato. Nor was I ever a jock. From my university days and onward, three days a week of lacing up my Nikes to pound the pavement, or three aerobics classes weekly, were enough of a workout for me.

I also had a serious problem with insomnia. It started out as trouble falling asleep. A bad day at work or excitement about an upcoming event kept me wound up at night and much too aroused to sleep.

Eventually the problem morphed into insomnia surf ‘n’ turf. While on some nights I kept vigil until 2 a.m., on other nights I drifted off for a while only to awaken for a long stretch in the middle of the night. Still other nights I woke up as early as 4 in the morning. And then it was a struggle to make it through the next day.

My physician brother-in-law suggested that wearing myself out with daily exercise might help me sleep. I’d wondered about that myself. But some nights after exercising I slept soundly, and other nights after exercise I slept poorly. There was no connection that I could see.

Besides, I was a project-driven person and often got engrossed in my work as a teacher and journalist. The thought of interrupting my rhythm every day, of having to stop at a certain time to hit the pavement or head to the gym, was unappealing. So I continued with the same routine.

But my sleep problem had increasingly unpleasant effects during the day. Not only was I physically tapped out by mid-afternoon. After bad nights I was moody and had mush for brains. Students misbehaving in the classroom got to me. And I couldn’t tell if my newspaper stories flowed well or were clunky and stale.

Something Had to Change

But what? As part of an all-out effort to get to the bottom of my insomnia and find relief, I decided to keep a sleep diary for a couple weeks. Every evening, I made a note of when and what I’d eaten and drunk that day (caffeine and alcohol in particular), and whether and when I’d exercised. Every morning, I noted when I went to bed, the number of awakenings I had, when I got up, and how much and how well I slept.

At the end of that two-week period I looked back at the data for clues about how my habits were affecting my sleep. My sleep varied a lot from day to day (no surprises there!). But having one or two cups of coffee in the morning didn’t seem to affect it. Nor did having a glass of wine as I was fixing dinner.

What clearly DID have a relationship with the quality and amount of sleep I got was exercise. I hadn’t noticed a pattern before. But as I looked at my sleep diary, there it was in black and white, a trend that was unmistakable. I went to sleep more quickly, and slept more soundly, on nights after I’d exercised late in the afternoon or early in the evening.

A New Routine

So—protesting loudly (What? One more daily commitment? I can’t fit it in!)—I started working out on the elliptical trainer or bicycling at the end of every day. Sleep now comes more easily and is more continuous than before, and I have more daytime stamina. So I’m rarely tempted to forgo my daily workouts. Insomniac nights are too big a price to pay.

If insomnia is your particular bugaboo, try daily exercise late in the day and see if it helps. Or try keeping a sleep diary for a few weeks. You never know what insights may turn up.

If you’ve noticed that exercise helps you sleep, what kind of exercise do you do, and when do you do it, to get the biggest bang for your buck?

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