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Life can be stressful, and it is natural to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared or angry in moments of uncertainty. Learning how to manage stress through regular exercise and getting a good night’s sleep is important for our overall health and well-being.

According to the 2014 book, “Atlas of Clinical Sleep Medicine,” edited by Kryger, “more than half of older adults in America experience some form of sleep disturbances and disorders.” With sleep quality often reduced with aging, the most notable changes are insufficient and unrestful sleep, with frequent nighttime wakening and regular daytime napping. Not getting the right sleep can have several consequences. A 2021 article, “How Does Sleep Affect Your Heart Health?” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated that, “lack of sleep has been associated with poor blood glucose control, high blood pressure, obesity, and heart-related conditions. Over time, poor sleep can lead to unhealthy habits like higher stress levels, less motivation to be physically active, and unhealthy food choices.”

The Sleep-Wake Cycle

Sleep is controlled by circadian rhythms which are found in the brain’s hypothalamus. It functions as an internal timer to tell us when to wake up and when to fall asleep. According to the 2012 article, “The Circadian Clock and Pathology of the Aging Brain,” scientists Anna Kondratova and Roman Kondratov concluded that the circadian rhythm is associated with keeping our sleep, eating patterns, memory, and mood under control.

The Effects of Aging on Sleep

With aging, circadian systems starts to wane. The 2015 National Sleep Foundation’s sleep guidelines titled, “The Sleep Time Duration Recommendations: Methodology and Results Summary,” by Max Hirshkowitz, states that seven to eight hours of sleep are recommended for adults aged 65 and older. According to the 2017 article, “Sleep in the Aging Population,” Brienne Miner and Meir Kryger suggest that age-related factors that affect sleep are medical conditions, medicine use, lifestyle and stress. Consequences of poor sleep habits result in slower motor skills and fitness, daytime drowsiness, risk for falls, and changes in mood and cognitive functioning.

Exercise and Sleep

The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, advises older adults to engage in at least 30 minutes of physical activity at least five days per week to help foster better sleep and better functioning throughout the day to help to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases. Adhering to a fitness routine can improve quality of sleep by reducing the length of time it takes to go to sleep once in bed and can increase alertness when rising in the morning. It also can increase the time in deep sleep and reduce daytime sleepiness.

What is the Best Mode of Exercise?

According to a 2005 article, edited by Lee Ferris, “Resistance Training Improves Sleep Quality in Older Adults a Pilot Study,” older adults with sleeping problems who participated in anaerobic exercise (such as resistance training) saw moderately positive effects on sleep quality. However, the 2007 article, “Mind-Body Interventions for Chronic Pain in Older Adults: A Structured Review,” by Natalia Morone and Carl Greco, showed that aerobic exercise (such as walking) combined with breathing and meditation had more promising results in managing stress and quality of sleep. Also, flexibility exercises (such as yoga) lowered stress levels, and pain in the neck and lower back.

When is the Best Time to Exercise?

In the John Hopkins Medicine’s article, “Exercise for Better Sleep,” Charlene Gamaldo advises “exercising earlier in the day and ending workouts at least one to two hours before going to bed,” and states that it is “enough time for the body temperature and endorphins to cool down and induce sleep.”

Stress and Sleep

Frequently experiencing stress can have harmful effects on our physical and mental health. In older adults, mood, anxiety and arousal impact sleep. Learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress can help prevent future adverse effects. Amy Sutton, in the 2011 book, “The Basics of Preventing and Managing Stress,” defines symptoms of stress in five categories: mental, physical, emotional, behavioral and spiritual. The most common signs of stress are forgetfulness, overly busy mind, tension, fatigue, insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, depression, worrying, loneliness, avoiding social situations, apathy, emptiness, and having no sense of purpose.

Luckily, there are simple tactics to help you manage stress and sleep. In part one of a 2005 article by Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg called, “Sudarshan Kriya Yogic Breathing in the Treatment of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression,” found that diaphragmatic breathing and flexibility exercises can reduce muscle tension and stress.

Although stress is one of the most common reasons for insomnia, researchers have determined that having an active lifestyle and good sleep hygiene are essential to avoiding sleep disturbances.

Kira Spreenberg is a Penn State graduate student working toward her master of professional studies in nutritional science and doing a supervised experiential learning with Penn State Extension in Lancaster County.

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