If you’re overweight, particularly around the middle, you may sleep better if you drop a few pounds. A recent study presented at an American Heart Association meeting found that losing weight, especially in your belly, improves the quality of sleep for overweight and obese people.
Researchers found that people who spent six months following either a combined diet and exercise program or a diet program alone lost an average of 15 pounds, with 15% of it in their bellies. Both groups also experienced improved sleep quality.
Excess body weight, especially in the neck, increases the likelihood of developing obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs when your airway becomes blocked, either completely or partially, while you sleep. It causes you to wake frequently, putting you at risk for a number of other conditions including stroke and high blood pressure. “So one possibility with the study results is that weight loss reduced sleep apnea and improved sleep quality,” says sleep expert Dr. Lawrence Epstein, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Another possibility is linked to diabetes. “Weight loss improves blood glucose control and reduces the chance you might get diabetes. Diabetes is a risk factor for restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement disorders. So weight reduction might also reduce the frequency of those sleep disorders, which also improves sleep quality,” says Dr. Epstein.
Jelly roll blues
We don’t yet know why losing belly fat in particular is associated with improved sleep. We do know, however, that certain belly fat, called visceral fat, is associated with heart disease, dementia, breast and colon cancers, and asthma.
So losing weight in the belly would seem a logical way to improve not only sleep but also overall health. Unfortunately, losing only belly fat isn’t possible.
“Where you lose weight is partly determined by genetics,” says Dr. I-Min Lee, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and an expert on physical activity’s role in promoting health and preventing chronic disease. “Generally, if you lose weight, some of this will occur in belly fat. You just can’t predict how much.”
What you can do
The answer to losing weight, improving sleep, and losing belly fat winds up being overall weight loss through good old-fashioned exercise and a healthy diet. Take it slowly. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (like swimming or brisk walking) each week. You don’t have to do five 30-minute workouts. More but shorter exercise sessions, such as three 10-minute brisk walks instead of one 30-minute walk, will have the same impact, says Dr. Lee.
Exercise alone generally doesn’t lead to substantial weight loss. You also need to cut back on daily calories. The lasting effects of combining exercise and weight loss will go far beyond improving your long winter’s nap and well into a healthy future.