The next time you struggle to fall asleep, skip warm milk and counting sheep and hit the weight room instead. Strength training has been linked with reduced anxiety and improved sleep quality, according to new research.
The study, published in Mental Health and Physical Activity, asked participants with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to participate in three, 30-minute strength-training sessions per week for nine weeks. The high-intensity workouts included 2–3 sets of five resistance-training exercises over a 20-minute period; those in the strength-training group fell asleep faster and reported higher quality sleep than those who did not exercise.
Lead author James W. Whitworth, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Boston University School of Medicine, believes the intensity of the strength-training workout was key to improving sleep, explaining, “[Studies show that] moderate and high-intensity exercise produce larger improvements in sleep when compared to low-intensity exercise … With that said, my primary recommendation … is to get active and stay active; some exercise is better than no exercise.”
While all of the participants in his study had been diagnosed with PTSD, which includes symptoms such as poor sleep quality, insomnia and nightmares, the results should be applicable to anyone struggling with sleep issues, according to Whitworth.
“Resistance training has been shown in numerous studies to benefit sleep, anxiety, mood and overall well-being in the general population,” he adds.
Much of the previous research on exercise and sleep has focused on cardiovascular exercise with some research showing that as little as one session of aerobic exercise has beneficial effects on sleep. Research exploring the connections between strength training on sleep is just starting to be explored and several studies have found positive associations.
Scott Collier, PhD, professor and director of the Vascular Biology and Autonomic Studies Laboratory at Appalachian State University, led a two-week study that found a 30-minute circuit of resistance exercises that included three sets of 10 repetitions helped improve sleep quality. Those who scheduled their workouts at 7 p.m. fell asleep faster and reported higher sleep quality than those who worked out at 7 a.m. or 1 p.m.
Rather than choosing one over the other, Collier advocates incorporating both resistance training and aerobic exercise into your workout. Research published in Sleep Medicine Reviews showed the combination had the most powerful effect on sleep quality compared to either cardio or strength training on its own.
“A well-rounded training program that [includes] a brisk walk for about 30–50 minutes most days of the week, combined with 2–3 days of simple resistance training, would give you whole-body fitness and improve sleep,” he says.