How using our brain and exercising helps us sleep

Katharine Green
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For me, one of the joys of the school holidays is not doing the school run and hopefully a chance of having more sleep, feeling rested. In practice, unless we are away it doesn’t seem to be the case. Most of us in our adult life are all too familiar with the effects of a poor nights sleep – irritability, low energy, ‘brain fog’ to name but a few.

Recent research by Professor Russell Foster, a neuroscientist from the University of Oxford, who has established a Centre for sleep, said lack of sleep was damaging health. He likens people with too little sleep, trying to function with brain skills so impaired they could be drunk. Studies have suggested that lack of sleep raises stress, which could lead to higher blood pressure and increased stroke risk.

For some, the amount of sleep they have is not always within their control. Some have good intentions but they are not able to sleep. There are lots of things we can do to help us sleep, ranging from what you eat, drink and do prior to sleeping, to our sleeping conditions, and what you have done during the day. We all know that fresh air and exercise help children sleep, but studies have proven that it is the same with adults.

In 1900 the British Medical Journal pronounced: “daily bodily exercise in the open air, but always short of great fatigue must be enjoined. What is called carriage exercise is better than no outdoor change at all, but walking is far better exercise and cycling better still, and riding on horseback the best of all ….Gardening in the open air, not in conservatories or hothouses affords good exercises and it is very efficient in keeping up objective attention.”

Although it sounds very dated, as a means to improve one’s sleep it is wiser than you might think; the mental activities of gardening will certainly ‘exercise the brain’ if sufficiently varied and stimulating. This is why Nordic walking fits perfectly, as we all know to do it properly certainly involves engaging our brains. It’s all to easy to be busy chatting and forget to roll our feet or to rotate our torsos.‘ Brain exercise’ leading to deeper sleep comes from spending a few hours walking in a changing, interesting environment, looking around and absorbing what is going on. Having conversations and meeting new people adds the important ingredient of novelty, putting further agreeable demands on one’s mind and brain. All this new stimulation makes the brain work harder than staying indoors surrounded by familiarity. What better brain exercise than joining one of our Nordic walking classes!

It has also been proven that being outdoors has another great advantage – daylight, which has a powerful effect on our internal ‘body clock’ and, particularly, the timing of sleep. It is why sunrise is so effective in waking people up. Daylight also has a subtle alerting effect in suppressing daytime sleepiness, and in doing so increases sleepiness at bedtime.

It has long been said that a long walk and a hot bath is the best ingredient for a good nights sleep. So whilst relaxing in the bath, reflect on the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote: “Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humour, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much” …. and a pair of poles……

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