Does exercise help sleep in the elderly?


Matthew P. Buman, PhD, School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, Arizona State University

Sleep complaints are common in adults 65 years and older. Even minor sleep complaints can lead to increased risk of accidents, falls, chronic fatigue, and decreased quality of life, while more significant sleep difficulties can lead to cognitive decline, reduced immune function, and depression in older adults. Because older adults are more likely to wake up after initially falling asleep and waking up earlier in the morning than younger adults, there have been quite a few research studies that have examined whether exercise can help older adults improve their sleep.

The results of these studies indicate that regular exercise can modestly improve sleep in older adults. How much and what type of exercise is needed? It appears that 150 minutes/week (or about 30 minutes/day on most days of the week) is sufficient to see improvements in sleep quality. This amount is consistent with the exercise needed to recognize other important health benefits such as lower risks for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Many different types of activities can help you reach this target, including aerobic activities (e.g., brisk walking, swimming), resistance activities (e.g., weight training), or balance activities (e.g., tai chi). Balance activities are especially important in older adults since these activities can help reduce the risk of falls and subsequent injuries and hospitalizations.

What about older adults in assisted-living facilities? It appears that even light exercise, in adults with poorer function living in assisted settings, can result in improved sleep. For example, one study found that simple exercises such as stretching or low-impact aerobics improved sleep quality. Another study found that short, incidental bouts of low-intensity activity (e.g., short walks) resulted in residents spending less time in bed during the day and more time at night asleep.

In summary, exercise can indeed improve sleep in older adults. In fact, the effects of exercise on sleep may actually be magnified for older adults since their sleep quality may not be optimal to start. Vigorous intensity activity is not required to see benefits, it’s best to start slow and increase activity progressively.