A long run or a hard session at the gym could help you sleep at night, according to scientists.
A study of more than 30,000 middle-aged adults found that those who regularly got their heart pumping were less likely to need pills to help them sleep.
Norwegian researchers examined volunteers’ medical records and prescription data.
One of the experts said: ‘These findings suggest that being physically fit can also help you sleep better.’
Fitter participants were up to 15 per cent less likely to seek out powerful drugs such as benzos, which are taken by millions in the UK and US.
Doctors should consider advising those with sleeping problems to exercise, based on the results, the team said.
According to the NHS one third of the of the adult population in the UK struggle with episodes of insomnia at some point in their lives. Sleeping problems have been linked to health conditions such as diabetes, depression, dementia and hypertension. Those who find themselves tossing and turning at night often resort to some sort of sleeping aid, such as sleeping pills
What is insomnia?
People with insomnia have difficulty sleeping.
The problem, which affects one in six Britons, can usually get better if sufferers change their sleeping habits.
Symptoms include finding it hard to sleep, waking up several times in the night, waking up early and struggling to get back to sleep.
It can be triggered by stress, anxiety or depression, noise, a room that is too hot or cold, an uncomfortable bed, shift work, alcohol, caffeine or nicotine, as well as recreational drugs.
Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
Insomnia a can be short term – lasting three months or less or long-term if it persists for more than 12 weeks.
Treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions with a therapist, which can help change thoughts and behaviours that stop people from sleeping.
GPs rarely prescribe sleeping pills over concerns about their side effects and drug dependency.
The study, led by a team at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim wanted to find out whether physical health affected the likelihood of someone seeking sleeping pills.
They looked at 34,357 people aged 52, on average.
They used data from a national health study, which measured participants’ resting heart rate, waist circumference and self-reported physical activity levels.
The researchers linked this data with the Norwegian Prescription Database, which contains data on all drugs that have been dispensed in pharmacies.
The results of the study, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, shows 5,800 volunteers sought out sleep medication during the 14-year study.
These included zolpidem, zopiclone, benzodiazepines and melatonin — which are available on prescription for sleep problems in the UK and US.
This means that approximately 17 per cent of the participants’ sleep problems were serious enough to require a doctor to prescribe sleeping pills.
But participants who were in the best physical condition and exercised the most used fewer of these prescription sleeping drugs.
However, the strength of this finding varied between groups.
Active men aged over-65 were least likely to seek out sleeping pills — suggesting they benefitted the most from exercise.
The findings show that the fittest men had a 15 per cent lower risk of needing drugs for their troublesome sleeping problems.
However, sleeping pill uptake was not slashed as much among the fittest women (12 per cent).
But researchers insist that does not mean women won’t see the benefit of exercise on sleep.
Study author Linda Ernstsen, an associate professor in public health and nursing at the university said: ‘We’ve observed that people who are in better physical condition have a lower risk of taking prescription sleeping pills.’
She added: ‘These findings suggest that being physically fit can also help you sleep better.
‘The corresponding percentage risk for the fittest women was much lower. But women who struggle with sleep can still benefit from getting in better shape.’
Because the study followed the participants for more than a decade, researchers believe the findings should influence the sleep advice that doctors give to their patients.
Professor Ernstsen added: ‘Our findings support the idea that improving or maintaining fitness can be an effective alternative for preventing sleep problems.’
Strength training and aerobic exercise, such as, running, cycling or swimming is thought to improve sleep and cut down the need for sleep medication.
But the researchers did not explain why exercise might ease sleeping troubles.
Experts believe it is down to changes in your core body temperature.
This is because when you exercise your body temperature increases and then drops once you finish your workout.
The drop in temperature mimics the temperature change that happens when you wind down to fall asleep, which could trick your brain into thinking it is time to sleep, according to a study in 1997.
Insomnia often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety and depression because worrying thoughts and stress can affect your sleep.
As a result, exercise could help beat insomnia by boosting your mental health through the release of endorphins.
Another reason why experts believe exercise helps insomnia is because it sorts out your body clock.
Some forms of exercise including running boosts serotonin, a hormone involved in the sleep-wake cycle. This hormone could improve the brain’s ability to regulate sleep.
It is thought 50 to 70million adults in the US have insomnia and one third of the of the adult population in the UK struggle with episodes of insomnia at some point in their lives.
Sleeping problems have been linked to health conditions such as diabetes, depression, dementia and hypertension.
Those who find themselves tossing and turning at night often resort to some sort of sleeping aid, such as sleeping pills.
But medics try to steer people into drug-free treatment, such as therapy, and rarely prescribe sleeping pills over concerns about their side effects.
Serious injuries including falls, fractures and even death have been linked to long-term use of these of the medications.