NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Exercise may improve sleep patterns in people with insomnia or sleep disruptions related to periodic leg movements, according to findings published in the January issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Medicine.

Dr. Marco Tulio de Mello and colleagues at Federal University of Sao Paulo-UNIFESP, Brazil, assessed the effects of acute intensive exercise on sleep patterns in 22 volunteers with periodic leg movements (PLM), which are often associated with restless legs syndrome (RLS). Eleven subjects continued with 72 physical training sessions for roughly the next 6 months.

Reductions in PLM were observed after both acute and chronic physical exercise. Acute intensive exercise increased sleep efficiency and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and reduced wake time after sleep onset. Chronic physical exercise increased sleep efficiency and REM sleep and reduced sleep latency. Beta-endorphin release after acute intensive exercise was negatively correlated with PLM levels.

The improvements were particularly pronounced in the patients with milder PLM, the authors note.

In a statement from the American College of Sports Medicine, which publishes the journal, lead author Dr. Andrea Maculano Esteves comments, “The ability of have restful and uninterrupted sleep is often taken for granted, but not usually by people with periodic leg movements or restless leg syndrome…. Exercise restores that ability, and quickly, too, as we see in the improvements in the acute exercise sessions. An added benefit here is that exercise is an alternative to a pharmacologic treatment, in terms of both outcome and cost.”

Med Sci Sports Exerc 2009;41:237-242.