I love sleep, so it kills me that I don’t seem to be able to do it well. I wake up around 3am most nights and have trouble getting back to sleep; sometimes I’m thinking too much, more often something is aching.
So when I saw an article talking about the optimal sleeping position, and another about the one thing that helps nearly everyone, I couldn’t resist talking about it.
Is there a correct sleeping position?
Are you a back, front or side sleeper? Most people sleep on their side (myself included) and consensus seems to be that it’s probably best even though there isn’t a lot of solid research behind it. How you sleep can be affected by lots of things (age, weight, environment) but some things are clear:
- Back sleepers tend to have more breathing problems: sleep apnoea is a classic example. Sleep apnoea is caused by the walls of the throat collapsing and becoming narrow as you breath in during sleep. Air tries to travel through the narrowed airway and causes vibrations in tissues in the back of the throat – these vibrations produce sounds known as snoring. And my goodness me, that snoring can be rage-inducing as the partner who is kept awake by it.
- Front sleeping is terrible for your neck. Terrible.
- If you do sleep on your side, one thing to avoid is rotating your spine too much. I find sticking a cushion under the top leg makes a huge difference to how I wake up in the morning.
- If you are pregnant, side sleeping after 28 weeks is recommended as sleeping on your back is a risk factor for stillbirth. This comes from increased pressure on the big vein coming down from the heart, which can reduce blood flow by 80 per cent. The pregnant woman’s aorta is also partly compressed in this position, which reduces blood flow and oxygen delivery to the uterus, placenta, and foetus. Needless to say, all these things are bad.
So you are sleeping on your side, but you still don’t seem to sleep well? What now? There’s plenty of advice (no screens two hours before bed, good sleep hygiene, hot bath or shower before bed…) but the one thing that seems to help everyone is… exercise.
You saw that coming, right?
But hat old chestnut keeps coming up for a reason.
A meta-analysis from 2015 which looked at all the current research on sleep quality, duration, and exercise, showed that both short-term and regular exercise (a few sessions a week) can lead to better sleep. This means that even a single bout of exercise may be enough to improve sleep quality and duration.
Research also shows us which types of exercise can help improve sleep. Regular aerobic exercise, for instance, has been shown to help people fall asleep quicker, wake up less during the night and feel more rested the following morning.
This was true for many different types of aerobic exercise, such as cycling, running, and even brisk walking.
Even just a single 30-minute session of aerobic exercise can improve multiple aspects of sleep – although not to the same extent as regular aerobic exercise.