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New Study Says Exercise May Help Neutralize Effects of Poor Sleep

    You may have been among the many who have wondered whether to give up an hour of sleep for a workout or to sleep in. In an ideal world, experts say it's best to get ample exercise and sleep. But a new study from China suggests that exercise might help counteract the negative health impact of insufficient sleep.

     A new study suggests exercise may help counteract negative effects of poor sleep.

    The new research builds upon a large body of work showing how critical fitness and sleep are for overall health. At least one paper has suggested that sleep issues increased the chances of a subject dying during the follow-up period, but getting regular exercise helped eliminate that risk.

    The study  

    A team of researchers wanted to understand the protective power of exercise better, so they examined data collected in the United Kingdom from over 92,000 adults between the ages of 40 and 73. Between 2013 and 2015, the participants wore a wristband for a week, measuring how much they slept and exercised. The researchers used this data to indicate their lifestyle habits.

    Years later, the researchers followed up on the participants' health outcomes. Predictably, those who got little sleep or slept too much and barely exercised were likelier to die during the follow-up period. Some of the causes of death include cardiovascular disease and cancer.

    However, the researchers uncovered a surprising trend in the data—participants who got enough exercise did not have an increased risk of death, even when they only slept less than six hours each night. 

    According to Jihui Zhang, an author of the study, the data suggests that completing 150 minutes of vigorous or moderate physical activity each week or around 21 minutes each day might negate some of the health repercussions associated with sleeping too little or too much. Zhang is also the director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Medicine at the Affiliated Brain Hospital of Guangzhou Medical University.

    Indeed, doing something is better than nothing. Going on regular short walks throughout the day or riding a stationary bike while watching your favorite TV show could payoff.

    However, there's a caveat: The researchers stressed that the study was primarily observational and not proof that exercise counteracts the toll of unhealthy sleep. It's best to view the findings as highlighting another angle into the health benefits of exercise.

    How exercise might negate poor sleep  

    Poor sleep typically elevates blood pressure and inhibits insulin resistance, contributing to an increased risk of heart disease. So the researchers' theory is that regular exercise might help balance the effects of unhealthy sleep by fighting inflammation or helping regulate the sympathetic nervous system and metabolism.

    Yet another compelling way that exercise interacts with sleep happens in the brain. A vigorous workout prods our cells to produce adenosine, a chemical that functions as a natural sleep aid. The adenosine our cells generate throughout the day, the more restorative sleep becomes—which could help neutralize a night or two of poor sleep.

    Aim for balance  

    Experts stress the importance of striving for balance. Despite the study's findings, you shouldn't sacrifice rest for exercise. If your work schedule is particularly hectic, you need more energy to stay active. In this case, it's best to get sufficient sleep but schedule some time to get moderate or vigorous physical activity. For example, you can do some brisk walking on your way to the grocery store.  

    Furthermore, keep in mind that different people have different sleep needs. Some can function well with fewer hours of sleep, while others need more. So, find out the amount of sleep that works best for you. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults aged 18 to 60 may need seven or more hours per night. 

    The next time you must choose between sleep or working out, evaluate your sleep quality that week. If you feel more sleep-deprived, it may be best to sleep in. Sleep-deprived people are more likely to hurt themselves during a workout. But if you'd still like to get some movement done, focus on moderate or restorative exercises instead.