People who sleep poorly are at higher risk of death from heart disease, stroke and cancer, but regular physical activity can mitigate that risk. This insight on exercise and sleep was reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (2021; doi:10.1136/bjsports-2021-104046) .

In a University of Sydney study, researchers analyzed the joint association of poor sleep and inactivity on increased risk of death from all cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

“We found those who had both the poorest sleep quality and who exercised the least were most at risk of death from heart disease, stroke and cancer,” said lead study author Bo-Huei Huang, PhD candidate from the Physical Activity, Lifestyle, and Population Health research group at The University of Sydney. “The findings suggest a likely synergistic effect, an interplay, between the two behaviors.”

Investigators examined health information, physical activity and self-reported sleep data collected for an average of 11 years up to May 2020 or to death, whichever came first, from 380,055 middle-aged men and women who were part of the UK Biobank study. Deaths related to COVID-19 were excluded.

Data analysis showed that the lower sleep scores were linked with higher risks of death from any cause. Low physical activity levels amplified these higher risks in all categories except for stroke. In contrast, higher physical activity levels that met or exceeded WHO guidelines of 600 METs (metabolic equivalent minutes) per week—the equivalent of 150 minutes of brisk walking or 75 minutes of running—eliminated most of the negative associations between poor sleep and mortality.

Fitness professionals may find this another incentive to work with allied healthcare professionals to ensure exercise and sleep. “Considering that physical  activity is perhaps more modifiable than sleep, our study offers people more health incentives to be physically active and provides health professionals with more reasons to prescribe physical activity to patients with sleep problems,” said principal investigator Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD,  research program director and faculty of Medicine and Health at The University of Sydney.

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