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Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a common sleep disorder estimated to affect 15% to 30% of men and 10% to 15% of women. People with OSA experience an increased number of lapses in breathing as they sleep, which often leads to other symptoms like snoring or daytime sleepiness. 

Since OSA and obesity are linked, people may wonder if exercise or weight loss can help treat the disorder. We cover how exercise and weight loss impact people with sleep apnea, which types of exercises have been studied, and when to talk to a doctor.

Does Exercise Help Sleep Apnea?

Exercise can reduce the severity of obstructive sleep apnea, even when it does not lead to significant weight loss. For people with OSA, exercise can lead to multiple helpful outcomes, including: 

  • Reduced number of lapses in breathing during sleep 
  • More time in bed spent sleeping 
  • Reduced daytime sleepiness 
  • Higher quality of life 
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength
  • Improved attention and cognitive function
  • Weight loss

Experts routinely recommend that people with obstructive sleep apnea exercise to the extent that they can. Exercise may lessen OSA symptoms by reducing the amount of bodily fluids that shift when a person lies down, which puts less pressure on the upper airway during sleep.

Can Weight Loss Improve Sleep Apnea?

Losing weight is tied to a reduction in OSA symptoms and daytime sleepiness. Similarly, gaining weight is tied to OSA symptoms worsening.

Weight loss seems to especially help people with mild or moderate OSA, and the reduction in their OSA symptoms after weight loss may last for years, even if they regain some of the weight. People who have severe OSA generally see a smaller change in OSA symptoms after weight loss.

Experts also routinely recommend that people who have OSA and are overweight or obese engage in exercise, diet changes, and other strategies focused on weight loss.

After weight loss, some people may experience resolution of OSA. 

Take Our Quiz to Know Your Sleep Apnea Risk

To understand if you could have sleep apnea, take our short quiz below to see if you exhibit any signs.

Exercises to Reduce Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Researchers have studied how multiple types of exercise impact people with OSA. These types have been found to reduce OSA symptoms:

  • Walking or jogging
  • Tai chi
  • Bicycling
  • Elliptical trainer use 
  • Resistance training
  • A mix of aerobic exercise and resistance training
“Choosing activities that are fun and that you can do consistently will give you the most success if you want to improve your health and your sleep.”
Dr. Audrey Wells
Dr. Audrey Wells
Sleep Medicine Physician, CPAP Expert , MD

When to Talk to Your Doctor 

If you experience symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, see a doctor. People who have OSA may snore, gasp, or stop breathing during sleep, feel very sleepy upon waking up and throughout the day, experience headaches, and fall asleep easily while driving, reading, or watching TV. 

Many people with OSA do not know that they stop breathing, snore, or gasp as they sleep. If a bed partner, family member, or housemate tells you that you do these things while asleep, see your doctor. A doctor can ask questions and conduct tests to determine if OSA is an issue you might be dealing with. 

Treating OSA is immensely important. When OSA goes untreated, a person may face a greater risk for anxiety, depression, work or school problems, vehicle accidents, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. While exercise may reduce OSA symptoms, people should not assume that if they exercise, they can avoid testing and treatment.

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References
6 Sources

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