Scads of research supports the link between exercise and heart health. Getting the blood pumping with a vigorous workout is important for preventing heart disease and stroke, but your heart also needs rest.
“Sleep is a critical pillar of health, as vital as a healthy diet and exercise for maintaining well-being,” says Natalie Dautovich, PhD, assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and environmental scholar for the National Sleep Foundation.
Several new studies have explored the connection between sleep and heart health. A paper presented at the 2018 European Society of Cardiology conference reported that middle aged men who slept fewer than five hours per night had twice the risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or dying from cardiovascular disease over the next two decades than men who slept 7–8 hours per night.
THE RISK OF IRREGULAR SLEEP
Research published in the journal Nature found those with irregular sleep patterns weighed more and had higher blood pressure and higher blood sugar — all risk factors for cardiovascular disease — and a higher projected risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next decade than those who went to bed and woke up at the same time each day.
The mechanism is unclear but lead researcher Jessica R. Lunsford-Avery, PhD, assistant professor at the Duke University Medical Center, notes that the irregular sleepers in the Nature study tended to be less physically active, more stressed and more depressed than regular sleepers. All of these factors, she explains, could lead to poor heart health.
Much of the advice physicians give patients to support heart and metabolic health — eat better, sleep longer, exercise more — are obviously key to health but may be a challenge to implement,” admits Lunsford-Avery. “Tracking your bed- and wake-times using your phone or even pencil-and-paper may help you become more aware of your sleep patterns and begin to set a more regular schedule.”
It’s not just too little sleep that can take its toll on your ticker. A 2018 study published in the journal Neurology looked at the sleep habits of 16,733 men and found white men who slept more than 9 hours per night had a 70% higher risk of stroke compared to white men who were average sleepers.
TOO MUCH SLEEP VS. TOO LITTLE
In an interesting twist, black men who slept fewer than 6 hours per night were 80% less likely to have a stroke than black men who slept 7–8 hours per night. In a statement, researcher Virginia J. Howard, PhD, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham noted it was one of the first studies to look at the relationship between race, sleep duration and heart health.
“Short sleepers” who are getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night — the National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get 7–9 hours of sleep per night — should think twice before sleeping less during the week and catching up on their zzz’s on weekends, according to Dautovich.
“‘Make up’ or compensatory sleep can never have the same benefits as obtaining sufficient, good quality sleep from the start,” she says. “Sleeping in later on the weekends to make up for lost sleep can make it difficult to fall asleep [when the weekend is over] which can lead to a deficit starting the week.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
To ensure you’re getting enough quality sleep to protect against heart health, Lunsford-Avery offers this advice: “Boosting the regularity of your sleep/wake patterns is fairly straightforward: Set your alarm clock to rise at the same time each day, even on weekends and set a regular bedtime and stick to it as best you can.”