How I Found My Way, Kicking & Screaming, to Sounder Sleep

sounder sleep

I was never a couch potato. Nor was I ever a jock. From my university days and onward, three days a week of lacing up my Nikes to pound the pavement, or three aerobics classes weekly, were enough of a workout for me.

I also had a serious problem with insomnia. It started out as trouble falling asleep. A bad day at work or excitement about an upcoming event kept me wound up at night and much too aroused to sleep.

Eventually the problem morphed into insomnia surf ‘n’ turf. While on some nights I kept vigil until 2 a.m., on other nights I drifted off for a while only to awaken for a long stretch in the middle of the night. Still other nights I woke up as early as 4 in the morning. And then it was a struggle to make it through the next day.

My physician brother-in-law suggested that wearing myself out with daily exercise might help me sleep. I’d wondered about that myself. But some nights after exercising I slept soundly, and other nights after exercise I slept poorly. There was no connection that I could see.

Besides, I was a project-driven person and often got engrossed in my work as a teacher and journalist. The thought of interrupting my rhythm every day, of having to stop at a certain time to hit the pavement or head to the gym, was unappealing. So I continued with the same routine.

But my sleep problem had increasingly unpleasant effects during the day. Not only was I physically tapped out by mid-afternoon. After bad nights I was moody and had mush for brains. Students misbehaving in the classroom got to me. And I couldn’t tell if my newspaper stories flowed well or were clunky and stale.

Something Had to Change

But what? As part of an all-out effort to get to the bottom of my insomnia and find relief, I decided to keep a sleep diary for a couple weeks. Every evening, I made a note of when and what I’d eaten and drunk that day (caffeine and alcohol in particular), and whether and when I’d exercised. Every morning, I noted when I went to bed, the number of awakenings I had, when I got up, and how much and how well I slept.

At the end of that two-week period I looked back at the data for clues about how my habits were affecting my sleep. My sleep varied a lot from day to day (no surprises there!). But having one or two cups of coffee in the morning didn’t seem to affect it. Nor did having a glass of wine as I was fixing dinner.

What clearly DID have a relationship with the quality and amount of sleep I got was exercise. I hadn’t noticed a pattern before. But as I looked at my sleep diary, there it was in black and white, a trend that was unmistakable. I went to sleep more quickly, and slept more soundly, on nights after I’d exercised late in the afternoon or early in the evening.

A New Routine

So—protesting loudly (What? One more daily commitment? I can’t fit it in!)—I started working out on the elliptical trainer or bicycling at the end of every day. Sleep now comes more easily and is more continuous than before, and I have more daytime stamina. So I’m rarely tempted to forgo my daily workouts. Insomniac nights are too big a price to pay.

If insomnia is your particular bugaboo, try daily exercise late in the day and see if it helps. Or try keeping a sleep diary for a few weeks. You never know what insights may turn up.

If you’ve noticed that exercise helps you sleep, what kind of exercise do you do, and when do you do it, to get the biggest bang for your buck?

Photo by Alex

8 thoughts on “How I Found My Way, Kicking & Screaming, to Sounder Sleep”

  1. For more than a decade I had severe problems to fall asleep. I didn’t really have problems to sleep – I could sleep until 10AM or 11AM in the morning, but I simply couldn’t fall asleep before 2AM.

    I tried all sorts of things that supposedly should make it easy to fall asleep, but none of them worked. However, when I started to practice daily meditation before going to sleep, my problem was “cured” within a week.

    In my case, the problem was that I simply couldn’t calm my mind – the later it got, the more active my mind became: I had all sorts of ideas, I was thinking about yesterday and tomorrow…

    30 minutes of meditation before going to sleep helps me to slow down and calm my mind and now, I usually fall asleep within 10 or 15 minutes.

  2. While I’ve never had any extended bouts of insomnia your post was very appropriate since I happened to watch the Ted talk on sleep and how important it is. I also like the suggestion of the sleep journal, you can totally apply to that so many aspects of your life – test, test, test. Some things will work others won’t but because so many things seem unrelated they’re hard to notice until we see it in black and white like with a journal.

    1. only at nights my brain works fast , thinking about the sad events, incidents which hurted me. i turn mad.. i don’t sleep all nights ,,only few hours of morning i could sleep

    2. Dan,

      As I say in this post, daily exercise has been really helpful to me. I go to sleep more quickly now and often sleep right through the night without wake-ups.

      The other thing I credit for my improved sleep is a treatment I underwent called “Sleep Restriction Therapy (SRT).” It’s a behavioral therapy for insomnia that involves restricting your time in bed for a few weeks in order to consolidate your sleep and eventually find your ideal sleep time. If your problem is waking up in the middle of the night, SRT would probably help you.

      I’ve written 3 blog posts about it (and made a short video in which I talk about my experience of it, too!). If you’re interested in pursuing it, just google my website, The Savvy Insomniac.

  3. Lois,

    I have always been a fairly sound sleeper, but perhaps having always been a runner daily exercise has always been helping this.

    For a while I was getting a little bit of insomnia, though, and my solution was to cut out internet for an hour before sleep.

    This was something that really did help me get rid of that last little bit.

  4. Everyone’s comments blessed me. I have been really struggling with sleep deprivation lately and it has affected me so much. I do realize as I read some of the comments that when I exercise in the evening, I actually sleep better. I am going to keep a sleep journal — I do believe falling asleep with the TV on only to have to wake up and turn it off later is a problem. In any event, all of the responses were most helpful.

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