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Originally published Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 5:45 AM

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Can’t sleep? Take a walk

Even a little exercise will help you sleep better. And it doesn’t matter what time of day you stretch those muscles, researchers say.

The Orange County Register

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Too bad you didn't mention in the sleep article anything about Restless Legs Syndrome... MORE

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By now, you’ve probably recovered from the sleep blip caused by the return to daylight saving time. But if you have difficulty sleeping the rest of the year, too, there are ways you can help yourself. The most important one might be: Take a walk.

A recent poll released by the National Sleep Foundation found that people who exercise, even a little, enjoyed more restful sleep than people who got no exercise at all.

“I don’t think we can say, on the basis of this poll, that exercise improves sleep, but people who exercise regularly are less likely to report sleep disturbance,” said Dr. Barbara Phillips, the medical director of the sleep lab at the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine. She also helped put together questions for the poll, taken of 1,000 adults ages 23 to 60.

The most active people reported the fewest problems: Among the respondents who described themselves as vigorous exercisers, 83 percent said their sleep quality had been “very good” or “fairly good” in the previous two weeks.

But there wasn’t much drop-off for those who exercised less: 77 percent of moderate exercisers had very or fairly good sleep, and 76 percent of light exercisers agreed.

In the group that engaged in no physical activity, only 56 percent said they got enough sleep.

The time of day the exercise took place didn’t seem to matter. Many experts have long urged people to avoid working out right before bed, arguing that sleep comes more quickly when the body is cooled down and not overstimulated.

Among the respondents who exercised within four hours of bedtime, 55 percent said their sleep improved on exercise days; among those who exercised further away from bedtime, 54 percent said their sleep was better on those days.

The Sleep Foundation has now amended its guidelines to encourage sleepers to exercise, regardless of the hour, as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of sleep.

“If you’re a typical American and you have a day job, that only leaves so much time for exercise,” Phillips said. “We shouldn’t give people an excuse to not exercise.

“What we’re saying now, loud and clear, is that unless your doctor tells you otherwise, exercise anywhere, anytime you can if you want to improve your sleep.”

The poll also makes a strong connection between a lack of exercise and obstructive sleep apnea, a serious disorder in which the airway is blocked, often by the tongue or other soft tissue inside the mouth or throat. This causes the sleeper to wake up during the night, sometimes dozens of times an hour, and the result can be anything from sleepiness during the day to an increased risk of diabetes, depression and heart attacks.

Being overweight vastly increases the odds of developing sleep apnea, since fatty tissue reduces the airway space. Men with a neck size of 17, and women of 16, are at greater risk of apnea.

The poll said that 44 percent of nonexercisers had a moderate risk of sleep apnea, compared with a 26 percent risk for light exercisers.

Sleepers whose problems persist, and especially those who snore at night, should get checked out by a sleep specialist.

These dangers don’t mean that we should disregard the temporary disruptions that come with the arrival of daylight saving time. A 1996 study showed that the vehicle-accident rate on that first workday went up 8 percent, compared with one week later. And last year, a University of Alabama at Birmingham study showed that the time change was associated with a 10 percent increase in heart attacks on the following Monday and Tuesday.

Most people have recovered from the switch in a day or two. But if you’re still missing that lost hour of sleep, these tips might help:

• Get plenty of sunlight in the morning, as early as you can.

• Avoid bright lights in the evening, including the use of electronic gadgets that emit LED light.

• Even if you’re tired, don’t take a nap.

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