(CNN)It was hard to get enough sleep before the coronavirus pandemic.
Sleep problems actually “constitute a global epidemic that threatens health and quality of life for up to 45% of the world’s population,” according to the World Sleep Society, a non-profit organization of sleep professionals dedicated to advancing “sleep health worldwide.”
Add to that the multiple stressors caused by the pandemic, including illness and loss of life, job loss, social isolation and mental health issues, and it’s amazing that we get any sleep at all.
One way to try to get good sleep is by exercising — vigorous exercisers surveyed by the National Sleep Foundation reported that they were almost twice as likely to report high-quality, regular sleep compared to non-exercisers.
CNN Wellness turned to CNN fitness contributor Dana Santas — a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports — to get her advice.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: Do a lot of your clients talk to you about sleep?
Dana Santas: Yes! Professional athletes need their bodies and minds to perform optimally when they’re participating in their sports. Sleep quality is one of the most important factors impacting performance.
Whether I’m brought into a team to work on enhancing breathing, mobility or mindset, sleep plays a role in all of those areas, so it inevitably needs to be addressed. Most athletes understand the paramount importance of sleep in maintaining their overall health and performance. In the rare instances when they don’t bring it up, I always ask about how they’re sleeping when I’m assessing their overall function.
CNN: What are their chief concerns?
Santas: Most athletes have stressful training and game schedules. For instance, Major League Baseball has a 162-game regular season. That means almost daily games often in four or five different cities every month, putting them in different beds in different hotels in different time zones on a regular basis. Consequently, they struggle with establishing effective sleep routines as their circadian rhythms (internal body clocks) are adversely impacted by all the travel and fluctuating schedules, as most weekday games are played at night while many weekend games are during the day.
When an athlete is struggling with getting adequate rest, there is no question that they feel the impact in everything they do. Ultimately, they’re worried about how it will impact their careers. Without adequate sleep, our bodies can’t recover, leading not only to performance deficits — like slower reaction times and decreased endurance — but increased risk of injury due to things like muscle fatigue and brain fog. These are potentially career-ending concerns.
CNN: Is there any connection between exercise and sleep? If so, what?
Santas: Thankfully, yes, there is a positive connection between exercise and sleep, which is one thing athletes have going for them as they exercise regularly. It’s not just in the weight room or when they’re practicing or playing in a game. Because their bodies are craving the recovery, for the most part, it’s a matter of ensuring that they have optimal circumstances to enable themselves to get the sleep that they need.
Because athletes are exercising all the time, this can actually work against them when they do not manage to get enough sleep. Without adequate sleep to recover from exercise, it can lead to overtraining syndrome, which results in muscular breakdown due to decreases in testosterone, increased cortisol levels and increased inflammatory response. This is why I mentioned injury as a chief concern due to lack of sleep quality.
CNN: How important is the rest and recovery part of the workout?
Santas: For professional athletes, it’s generally not an issue of not getting enough exercise to help facilitate sleep; it’s about ensuring that they incorporate cool downs postgame or post-late-night workout to ensure they’re initiating a parasympathetic response, which is the rest and recovery aspect of the nervous system. It’s as simple as spending just a few minutes stretching and taking deep breaths post-workout, but it’s profoundly effective.
I often encourage athletes to do those few minutes of stretching and breathing in their hotel rooms right before bed to downregulate after a stimulating game or travel, so they can get into “rest and restore” mode and release any tension in their bodies to prevent aches and pains from letting them sleep or waking them in the night.
CNN: For people who aren’t professional athletes, what kind of exercise do you recommend?
Santas: For most people, it’s usually more about ensuring they are getting enough moderate-intensity exercise daily to help their bodies naturally crave rest at the end of the day. Moderate intensity is anything that gets your heart pumping and increases your respiration rate. Too often people confuse moderate intensity with high intensity and think they need to be sweating profusely and out of breath. That’s just not the case. Although high-intensity exercise can also be efficient and effective, it can understandably be overwhelming for someone new to exercise and difficult to maintain long term.
Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.
A brisk walk, bike ride or a few rounds of body weight exercises can do the trick, as long as you’re doing it for at least 20 to 25 minutes a day. Adding in some strength training is also important — not just for better sleep but for overall health, because the more muscle mass you have, the more metabolic demand on your body — not just when you’re exercising. This means you are burning more calories all day long, essentially revving your engine more consistently all day so that your body is better prepared to rest at night.
CNN: For people who haven’t been exercising at all during the pandemic, how do you advise they start?
Santas: Slow! Going slow is especially true for anyone who is already struggling with sleep issues. Remember what I said about the increased risk of injury for pro athletes who are training hard but not getting adequate sleep? The same applies to the general population. Start by setting a foundation with daily walking and mastering body weight movements. Listen to your body and add weight training as you feel ready.
CNN: Does starting to exercise help people sleep?
Santas: As someone starts adding exercise into their daily routine, they will begin to notice that sleep comes more easily. Your body craves what it needs and, as long as you provide the environment to facilitate it — like a dark, cool room and comfortable bed — you should be able to get quality rest without much effort. But just like the examples I provided of the athletes’ sleep being disrupted by changes in their sleep routines, it’s important to try to go to sleep around the same time every night, if at all possible, to keep your internal clocks in check.
CNN: What do you do when you can’t sleep?
Santas: As a breathing and mobility coach, I understand how to leverage my breathing and movement to prompt my body’s parasympathetic “rest and recover” system. It’s science but it’s not rocket science, so anyone can and should do what I do. I use the same simple, yoga-based stretches combined with deep breathing that I program for my athlete clients — just a few moves to release muscular areas where we tend to hold tension that can lead to aches and cramps that might wake us.
We know that just 90 seconds of deep breathing can elicit a relaxation response. Ensuring I take at least a couple of minutes of long, deep, focused breaths is one of the easiest ways to help me fall asleep faster. That’s why I always tell people: Don’t count sheep; count breaths instead.
CNN: If sleep issues persist, what should people do?
Santas: If you’ve tried exercising and establishing a solid sleep routine but quality sleep still eludes you, definitely check with your doctor as there could be another health factor at play that you wouldn’t want to ignore.