Research shows you can replace sleep with exercise. Kinda

Beautiful Asian young woman tired taking a break from running or exercise sitting on treadmill machine drinking water and towel sweat in fitness gym healthy .girl in sportswear workout rest in morning
Researchers have found that physical activity can make up for bad sleep when it comes to preventing things like cancer or heart disease (iStockphoto)

In an ideal world, we’d all have time for eight or nine hours of sleep a night and we’d be feeling on top of the world.

Apart from an improved mood, the benefits to good sleep are numerous: studies have shown it reduces chances of heart disease, stroke and even cancer.

But usually jobs, kids, social commitments, sporting events, Netflix, PlayStation, a good book or even worries and anxieties can get in the way of a solid night’s kip.

What to do? Well, according to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, you may be able to make up for poor-quality sleep with exercise.

The findings come from studying the data of 380,055 middle-aged people involved in the UK Biobank research project.

Researchers looked at the weekly physical activity levels of the people over an 11-year time span.

The participants were grouped into three levels of physical activity (high, medium or low based on WHO guidelines) and were also given a sleep quality score from 0-5 based on the amount of sleep they got, how late they stayed up, insomnia, snoring and daytime sleepiness.

‘We found that, compared to healthy sleepers, people with poor sleep had a 23% higher risk of premature death, a 39% higher risk of dying from heart disease, and a 13% higher risk of dying from cancer,’ explained epidemiologist Bo-Huei Huang, from the University of Sydney in Australia.

‘We then compared the data of people who slept well with those who slept poorly, and how much they exercised.

‘We found people who had the highest risk of dying from heart disease and cancer were those who had poor sleep and didn’t meet the WHO physical activity guidelines.

‘On the other hand, those who had poor sleep but did enough physical activity to meet the WHO guidelines didn’t have as high a risk of dying from heart disease or cancer, compared to those who slept poorly and didn’t meet the physical activity guidelines.’

The research doesn’t do enough to literally prove you can replace sleep with exercise, but it does show enough of a correlation to interest scientists.

‘Levels of physical activity at or above the lower threshold recommended by WHO appeared to eliminate most of the detrimental associations of poor sleep and mortality,’ write the researchers in their paper.

‘Both behaviors are critical for health but, sadly, our society suffers from both a physical inactivity and a poor sleep crisis,’ says population health researcher Emmanuel Stamatakis, from the University of Sydney.

‘Considering that physical activity is perhaps more modifiable than sleep, our study offers people more health incentives to be physically active; and provides health professionals with more reasons to prescribe physical activity to patients with sleep problems.’

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