Physical activity, sleep and ageing

24th August 2023

Posted by Dr Michelle Wright

We all know that sleep is good for us. We all know that physical activity is good for us. But is one better than the other? That’s exactly what a study, recently published in the Lancet medical journal, looked at, physical activity, sleep and ageing.

The study, based on a cohort of healthy English adults who were at least 50 years old at baseline, examined how physical activity and sleep duration impacted cognitive function and dementia risk.  It analysed data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, collected from almost 9000 respondents between 2008 and 2019.  

Physical activity, sleep and ageing

The study findings showed that both good sleep and regular physical activity are important independent factors that can help to protect against age-related cognitive decline and dementia.  

However, interestingly, you can’t just ‘run’ or ‘cycle’ yourself to good cognitive function. You need good sleep too.  In the study, short sleep duration was categorised as less than six hours on an average weeknight, optimal was six to eight hours, and long was more than eight hours.  

After 10 years, even though they were physically active, the cognitive function of those with short sleep duration declined faster than those who slept longer, even if the longer sleepers did less physical activity. 

The study researchers concluded that ‘physical activity interventions should also consider sleep habits to maximise the benefits of physical activity for long-term physical health.’ So, for me, this study reminds us that we need to consider a holistic approach to our well-being. Think about the three basics of sleep, nutrition, and physical activity together, rather than addressing them in isolation, or just focussing on one aspect.    

Do you struggle with sleep?

If you’re someone who struggles with their sleep, and around a third of us struggle to get to sleep at least on a weekly basis, (with anxiety and stress being important causes of insomnia) here are some sleep tips taken from my podcast for World Radio Switzerland in September 2021:

Tips for a good night’s sleep

A good night’s sleep begins in the morning by getting good light: just 20 minutes of daylight sends a strong message to our brain to wake up and sets up our 24-hour clock for the day ahead.   

To keep this clock well calibrated, we should ensure a regular bedtime routine 7 days a week.  Setting an alarm in the evening to begin our night-time wind down can help fine-tune the accuracy of our internal clock. Dimming the lights an hour before bed, lowering the temperature in our bedroom to 18 degrees and taking a nice hot bath, both to relax and to cool our core temperature down can also help.   

Body temperature naturally falls as we go to sleep, along with heart rate and blood pressure, so anything that drives these up, hampers sleep. 

Another tip is to keep a notebook and a pen beside the bed and write down any worries that wake us at night. Putting our ‘to do’ list, worrying thoughts, or even three things we are grateful for on paper can really help to quiet our mind.  

And if we wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep, the best thing to do is to get up: retrain our brain that our bed is for sleeping in! 

Finally, switch off the snooze button. If we must set an alarm to wake us in the morning, we don’t need to relive that stress impact more than once! 

If you are interested in finding out how coach Dr Mecky McNeil might help you address these issues, why not take a look at the services she offer.

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