The findings come from studying the data of 380,055 middle-aged people involved in the UK Biobank research project.
Researchers looked at the weekly physical activity levels of the people over an 11-year time span.
The participants were grouped into three levels of physical activity (high, medium or low based on WHO guidelines) and were also given a sleep quality score from 0-5 based on the amount of sleep they got, how late they stayed up, insomnia, snoring and daytime sleepiness.
‘We found that, compared to healthy sleepers, people with poor sleep had a 23% higher risk of premature death, a 39% higher risk of dying from heart disease, and a 13% higher risk of dying from cancer,’ explained epidemiologist Bo-Huei Huang, from the University of Sydney in Australia.
‘We then compared the data of people who slept well with those who slept poorly, and how much they exercised.
‘We found people who had the highest risk of dying from heart disease and cancer were those who had poor sleep and didn’t meet the WHO physical activity guidelines.
‘On the other hand, those who had poor sleep but did enough physical activity to meet the WHO guidelines didn’t have as high a risk of dying from heart disease or cancer, compared to those who slept poorly and didn’t meet the physical activity guidelines.’
The research doesn’t do enough to literally prove you can replace sleep with exercise, but it does show enough of a correlation to interest scientists.
‘Levels of physical activity at or above the lower threshold recommended by WHO appeared to eliminate most of the detrimental associations of poor sleep and mortality,’ write the researchers in their paper.
‘Both behaviors are critical for health but, sadly, our society suffers from both a physical inactivity and a poor sleep crisis,’ says population health researcher Emmanuel Stamatakis, from the University of Sydney.
‘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.’
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