Why Too Much Physical Activity Is Bad For Sleep

Sleep researchers Lyudmila Korostovtseva and Elena Dubinina discuss new research exploring sleep quality and physical activity.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 12, 2021

A new article appearing in the Frontiers in Psychology suggests that too much physical activity can negatively impact a person's ability to get a good night's sleep.

I recently spoke with Lyudmila Korostovtseva and Elena Dubinina, two of the authors of the paper, to discuss this research in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of physical activity and sleep quality, and what did you find?

Sleep itself is a fascinating part of our life and the investigation of the factors which affect sleep and its quality is important. The sleep lab at Almazov National Medical Research Center has been conducting research in the field of somnology since 2002, and the deeper we dive into the topic the more questions arise. The burden of low sleep quality and sleep disorders is high in modern society and is associated with social and medical consequences. An important point for solving the problem is to understand the underlying and predisposing factors.

We investigated the association between the level and type of physical activity and sleep problems in an adult population in Russia. The study was part of The Epidemiology of Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Diseases in Regions of the Russian Federation Study (ESSE-RF). 4800 participants from three different regions, ages 25-64, were interviewed. The main result of the study is the fact that extremely high occupational physical activity and having a high physical load 6 or more times a week increases the risk of difficulty falling asleep 3 or more times a week, which is one of the key criteria of insomnia. In other words, a high physical load at work and excessively frequent intensive physical activity may predispose people to insomnia.

Why is it that too much exercise negatively impacts a person's sleep quality?

First, we should specify that according to our study any type of high physical load may negatively impact sleep quality. Most prominent is evidence of negative consequences of high occupational physical load. We cannot accurately differentiate the effect of occupational and leisure physical activity, but it is clear that too frequent excessive physical activity may be detrimental for sleep quality, especially for falling asleep.

The causes of such a relation are still to be clarified. One possible mechanism underlying the adverse effects of excessive physical activity is hyperarousal state — a state of increased responsiveness manifesting itself in various physiological and psychological symptoms. Another possible explanation is musculoskeletal pain as a consequence of physical overload.

More research is needed to reveal the main factor linking excessive physical activity and poor sleep.

What are the practical takeaways from your research, and other related papers, for someone who is looking to optimize their sleep quality?

Although any practical conclusions from our study may be premature we suppose in general that if you care about your sleep quality or have a tendency to insomnia it is reasonable for you to avoid regular exhaustive physical activity.

More thorough evidence-based advice on physical activity can be found in the WHO's Global Recommendations on physical activity for health, in particular:

  1. Adults aged 18–64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or do at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.
  2. Aerobic activity should be performed in bouts of at least 10 minutes duration.
  3. For additional health benefits, adults should increase their moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes per week, or engage in 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.
  4. Muscle-strengthening activities should be done involving major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.

Talking about sleep we should also recommend to avoid too much physical activity just before going to bed, although the precise timing can vary individually, although our study did not focus on this issue.

These are general recommendations for good health and there is evidence that complying with them is beneficial for sleep. Moreover, physical exercise may be regarded as an alternative or complementary approach to existing treatment for sleep disorders.

But, as research revealed and our study confirmed, very high levels of regular physical activity may be as much detrimental for sleep as very low physical activity. And it is especially true for high occupational physical load.

Summing up, we should follow the rule of the golden mean, to keep balance between extremes in physical activity.

You mention that sleep problems are tightly related to anxiety and depression. Can you expand on that?

The relationship between sleep problems and anxiety as well as depression is a documented fact. The relationship is very tight and a bidirectional one creating a vicious circle of emotional and sleep disturbances. Indeed sleep problems not only may increase the risk of anxiety and depression but may represent the symptoms (sometimes first symptoms) of these disorders. Additionally, anxiety and depression typically lead to sleep problems. Not all persons with anxiety and depressive disorder have sleep disturbances but the probability of developing these abnormal states in the long run is very high.

It's not surprising that our study confirmed this almost dissoluble link.

Do you have any plans for further research on this topic? What do you hope research in this area explores next?

The results of our study bring to light a number of interesting questions regarding the influence of different types (leisure-time and occupational) and levels (low and high) of physical activity on sleep quality. The mechanisms underlying the relationship between physical activity and sleep are still to be clarified. Also, we hope to add a new perspective on this issue of studying the sleep characteristics of professional athletes: the effects of different types of physical load on sleep quality and possible consequences of sleep disturbances for individual athletic performance and achievements.

What type of guidance can you give about the differences between strenuous physical activity (i.e., running and lifting) versus light physical activity (i.e. walking) on sleep quality and mental health?

Summing up the results of our study we can conclude that regular excessive physical activity may lead to disordered sleep, especially difficulties falling asleep. Both strenuous and light physical activity are beneficial to health for those who have no medical contraindications. But as in other areas (and this is confirmed by ours and other studies) any extremities can be detrimental to health.

There is evidence that high occupational physical activity does not exclude the necessity of leisure-time physical activity and excessive occupational physical load with a very low leisure-time physical activity may be the most harmful combination.

Thus we again return to the rule of golden mean: the rule that was proposed centuries ago and which still works both in everyday life and in sleep research.