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How Exercise Impacts Sleep for Seniors

How Exercise Impacts Sleep for Seniors

Key Summary

Regular exercise can impact your ability to sleep soundly and improve your overall health. Learn some easy ways for seniors to exercise for improved sleep.

It’s no secret that seniors struggle with sleep. Many older adults have difficulty falling asleep and are often awake by dawn, ready to start their day before the sun comes up. Either you’ve experienced it, or you’ve heard a grandparent, parent or older family friend talk about the difficulties they have falling asleep and staying asleep. Maybe you’ve even seen dramatic and comedic portrayals of insomniac senior citizens and early risers! The amount of exercise and the types of activities you engage in will impact your ability to sleep soundly and make a difference when it comes to your overall health. In this article, we’ll take a look at the relationship between exercise and sleep and how you can improve the connection between the two.

Why Do Seniors Have a Hard Time Sleeping?

There’s no denying the reality that sleep patterns will change as we age. Studies have shown that it takes 13% of men and 36% of women over the age of 65 more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, which is far longer than younger adults and children.

Studies show that seniors wake up three or four times per night and have more difficulty falling back asleep. By dawn, we’re wide awake, but not always feeling particularly well-rested.

Still, poor sleep should not be considered a normal part of the aging process. Many of us don’t often have the chance to discuss this issue, but over the next few minutes, we’re going to explore one of the key factors in making sure you enjoy longer and more beneficial periods of sleep: Exercise.

The Relationship Between Sleep and Exercise

Consistent exercise can be a major contributor to healthier, more restful, peaceful, and productive sleep patterns. It can even help with chronic issues such as insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome (RLS).

Even if you’ve never been one to regularly “work out” in terms of going to the gym, running, cycling, lifting weights, swimming, etc., you certainly can recall times when you had a physically taxing day. Whether it was because you were helping a friend move, trying out new activities while on vacation, or engaging in some outdoor physical labor around the house, being active often equates to exercise. Odds are you’ll recall you “slept like a baby” on the following nights, and we don’t mean waking up to cry every 90 minutes!

Are Heavy Exercises Good for Sleep?

It stands to reason that regular exercise can be beneficial to your sleep habits. While heavy exercises like weightlifting or manual labor can be good for sleep (without risking serious injury as a senior) you don’t have to train for a marathon or join a health club in order to get the proper amount of exercise for healthy sleep patterns. Research indicates that just 150 minutes of exercise per week—that’s 30 minutes a day, five days a week—is sufficient to promote a better night’s sleep for most adults. The best time to exercise for sleep is usually at least one to two hours before going to bed.

Types of Exercise for Better Sleep

As mentioned, not every exercise needs to be grueling. However, consistent exercise for older adults is important to address sleep challenges. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular and senior-friendly types of exercise:

Swimming and Water Aerobics

Many health and exercise experts say swimming is the best exercise, regardless of age. For one thing, it’s a great way to maintain or even improve cardiovascular fitness, while putting minimal stress on your joints and bones.

Bodyweight Training

Don’t worry, no one’s asking you to bench press 250 lbs. In fact, you don’t have to lift weights at all, as you can engage in chair squats, wall push-ups, stair climbing and single leg stands.

Pilates and Yoga

Both Pilates and yoga are low-impact strength programs that focus on core stability and can increase strength in your muscles and bones. Many seniors take Chair Yoga classes, which are designed for beginners or those who want to work the lower body but might need the help of a chair. These classes have become hugely popular over the last decade.


Riding a bike is like…riding a bike. You never forget! Cycling is a great form of low-impact exercise and you can enjoy nature and the outdoors along the way.


If you’re not one to take group classes and you have difficulty sticking to a workout regimen, there’s still no substitute for the oldest form of exercise known to humankind: walking. If you’re able to walk on your own, you can try to hit a goal of 10,000 steps per day. Another great benefit of walking is that it doesn’t have to be a solitary form of exercise. You can walk with a spouse, a companion, a loved one, or a caregiver, and enjoy each other's company.

Activities to help improve sleep quality is one of the steps you can take to enrich the quality of life for seniors. Explore other ways to bring positive changes that will help preserve yours and your loved ones' mental, physical and emotional health.

Sleep and Exercise Facts

Consider the following benefits of choosing to exercise regularly for optimal sleep:

  • Elderly adults who regularly exercise are at a lower risk of being injured in a fall.
  • Moderate to vigorous exercise reduces sleep onset, i.e., the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.
  • Regular physical activity can help you “push through” wanting to take a nap during the day and alleviate daytime sleepiness.
  • In some cases, exercise can reduce the need for over the counter or prescription sleep medications.
  • When you’re exercising on a regular basis, you reduce the risk of excessive weight gain—which in turn reduces the risk of experiencing Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA).

Exercise has an impact on so many areas when it comes to quality of life. In addition to sleep, you can learn more about how it plays a critical role in joint and muscle preservation. Take a look at our article on “Exercise and Arthritis” for more information.

Find Senior Care Near You 

From preparing yourself to sleep more soundly to taking part in fun but effective activities that inspire better sleep, the right senior community can help you live a better, more fulfilling life. Talk with our Referah Family Connection Agents about how we can help you or your loved one with their unique needs and find your perfect community, today!

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