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People with sleep apnea often rely on a facial-mask device that keeps their airways open while they sleep.

Might regular exercise be another option for easing the episodes of interrupted breathing that characterize this sleep disorder?

This study

The researchers analyzed data from eight studies, involving 180 adults, most in their 40s, with diagnosed obstructive sleep apnea — the most common type — and compared those who exercised with those who did not. Exercise regimens included walking or running on a treadmill, riding a stationary bike and doing strength training for as few as two and as many as seven days a week.

The studies lasted from two to six months. Among people who exercised, sleep apnea symptoms improved. It became less severe, according to a standardized scale based on the frequency of their breathing interruptions, and the participants reported better sleep overall and less daytime drowsiness. Improvements were similar regardless of the type of exercise people did and were determined to be independent of any weight loss.

Who may be affected

People with obstructive sleep apnea. With this condition, airways collapse during sleep, which causes breathing to stop briefly and restart as many as 30 times an hour, all night long. An estimated 18 million Americans, more men than women, have the sleep disorder, which can cause severe daytime drowsiness, difficulty in concentrating and irritability.

Caveats

Data on sleep quality came from the participants’ responses on questionnaires. The study did not determine the type, duration and frequency of exercise that might be most helpful for people with sleep apnea.

Find this study

Online in Respiratory Medicine (resmedjournal.com; type “effect of exercise” into the search box).

Learn more

Information on sleep apnea can be found at nhlbi.nih.gov/health and mayoclinic.org.

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.