Insomnia, Exercise & Longevity by Carolyn Nutovic

"Insomnia and counting sheep over a cloud"It doesn’t take a scientist or medical professional to identify the importance of sleep for overall health, as poet William Wordsworth describes in “To Sleep“:

…Without Thee what is all the morning’s wealth?

Come, blesséd barrier between day and day,

Dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health!

Insomnia is the third most frequent health complaint in the United States, and adults age 60 and over suffer from insomnia more than any other age group. Researchers suspect that age-related changes in sleep phases and patterns, as well as various medical conditions play a role, especially those related to pain. (Hirshowitz & Smith 2004:62-63). In fact, about one-third of individuals older than 65 have chronic insomnia, according to sleep expert Carlos Schenck, MD (Schenck 2007:18).

So do you have to simply accept the fact that because you’re getting older you’ll have trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep? In 2003, the National Sleep Foundation conducted a large-scale poll of Americans between the ages of 55 and 84 to learn more about their sleep behaviors in relation to their overall health, activities, moods, and outlooks on life. They surveyed 1,506 people and discovered that the better the person’s overall health, the better his or her sleep, and vice versa. On the other hand, the greater the number of medical conditions, the more likely it was for the person to report sleep problems. The survey also found that those with more active lifestyles and a more positive outlook on life tended to have fewer sleep complaints (Schenck 2007:10).

What is the connection between exercise and sleep?

James Fries, M.D., author of Living Well: Taking Care of Yourself in the Middle and Later Years, writes, “Physical exercise is the most important promoter of good deep sleep. Our bodies are designed to be used, then rested, then used again. You need to be physically tired at the end of the day to sleep well.” (Fries 2004:308). The positive impact of exercise on sleep is echoed by all the experts. Michael Krugman, MA, founder of the Sounder Sleep System and an expert on sleep advises, “…please do exercise wherever, whenever you can…exercise lifts your spirits, puts a spring in your step, and makes your eyes sparkle in a way that makes you look younger than your years. Numerous studies show that vigorous exercise at any time of day—except in the evening, when exercise-induced stress hormone production can delay the onset of sleep—is one of the most effective lifestyle modifications you can make to promote natural restful sleep.” (Krugman 2005: 33-34) ‘Is it safe to raise your heart rate to the level of the ‘vigorous’ exercise?’ Krugman asks. If you’re currently sedentary, have limiting medical conditions, or are returning from an exercise hiatus, you should always consult your physician before starting an exercise regimen. Once you’re cleared to begin, Dr Fries recommends stretching, strengthening, and aerobic exercise. “Assess your present level of activity, and set goals for the next level of fitness you want to achieve. Your final goal should be at least one year away.” Start slowly and gradually work up to longer workouts. For example, set a heart rate target goal of 60% of your maximum for 15-30 minutes twice a week. The way to determine this is 220 minus your age, times 60%. If you are 70 years old, for instance, that figure would be 90 beats per minute. You can measure this in 30 second increments then multiply by 2, or purchase a heart rate monitor. Also, many larger pieces of gym equipment have built-in heart rate monitors. Dr. Fries believes mature adults need aerobic exercise more than ever, and offers this calming advice: “Some people worry that they have only so many heartbeats in a lifetime and that exercise will increase their heart rates and use them up. In fact, because of the decrease in resting heart rate, the fit individual uses 10% to 25% fewer heartbeats in the course of a day.” (Fries 2004:69, 72-73)

There are many ways to get the combination of stretching, strengthening, and aerobic exercise Dr. Fries advocates. Samples of stretching exercises are shown in the National Institute on Aging’s guide to exercise and physical activity (NIA/NIH p69ff). These are crucial at the beginning and end of every workout because they help loosen up joints and muscles beforehand, and prevent stiffness afterward. Strengthening exercises can be performed with handheld weights, resistance bands, or objects you have at home such as cans of soup or bottles of water. With regard to aerobic exercise, if you haven’t been exercising at all, start by walking 2-3 times a week for 15-20 minutes and gradually increase the number of times a week and duration of each session over a four-week period. If you start out winded in the first week, but are bored by week four, you can jog slowly or vary your route. Fitness classes in the swimming pool are also a good overall workout and are easy on your joints. Some people enjoy riding a stationary bike. Chair-based exercise is another great alternative. “Sit and Be Fit”, the PBS program, offers instruction on chair-based exercise at home. You can also use the Resistance Chair®, which is set up to provide a total body, low-impact workout, done mostly from a seated position. There is stretching, strengthening using the resistance cables that come already attached to the Chair, and light cardio that includes marching in place, sitting jacks, modified squats, and stepping while holding on to the back of the Chair. If you need to improve your balance and aerobic capacity, chair-based exercise is the safest way to begin, even before walking. Remember, start gently and go slowly. If you’re sore, substitute one activity for another. Don’t give up! “Many seniors who have achieved record levels of fitness, as exemplified by world class marathon times, have started exercising only in their sixties, seventies, or even eighties. Mt Fuji has been climbed by a man over 100 years of age who began to exercise at age 90.” (Fries 2004:72)

From sedentary to climbing a mountain?

It’s hard to imagine, but you’ve lived long enough to appreciate that change takes time. Change is best achieved in smaller increments, and it starts with an “I can” attitude. You can begin to exercise, or improve the regimen you already have. All the experts agree: exercise during the day can improve the quality of shuteye you get at night.

If you’re having trouble going to sleep, or if you’re waking in the middle of the night unable to fall back asleep, consider your diet and the amount of exercise you currently get. Try to make some simple adjustments like exercising twice a week and cutting back on caffeinated beverages. Keep notes on your average daily routine and be honest with yourself about what you eat and drink, the medications you take, and the amount of physical activity you engage in. Take questions to your next doctor’s visit. Be proactive–it’s your health and longevity! “The triumvirate of health is the ultimate lifetime philosophy of well-being. Individuals who behave according to its three principles–good nutrition, physical fitness, and healthy sleep–are well on their way to optimized health, energy, and longevity.” (

Carolyn Nutovic is a certified personal trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine and a customer service representative at VQ ActionCare, developers of the complete at-home Resistance Chair® exercise system for mature adults. For more information please visit, Carolyn may be contacted at (877) 368-6800 or via email at