Exercise and Sleep Apnea


Obstructive Sleep Apnea or OSA is an involuntary cessation of breathing that occurs while a person is asleep.  Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to health concerns such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, automobile accidents caused by falling asleep at the wheel, diabetes, depression, and other ailments. Typical symptoms of sleep apnea include heavy snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness or fatigue, difficulty with concentration or memory, and waking during the night feeling short of breath. (Sleepapnea.org )

There is growing evidence that exercise is an effective part of treatment for OSA.  Although it used to be thought that exercise was helpful only when a person lost weight, study’s show that exercise helps sleep apnea even before losing weight. 

According to one meta-analysis, for every 1 unit increase in the level of sleep apnea (Apnea/Hyponea Index or AHI), there is a 6% increased risk of stroke  in people with mild to moderate sleep apnea.  Exercise alone (without weight loss) can reduce the level of sleep apnea between 2 and 17 units showing that it can lower the risks of sleep apnea even before you lose weight. In other studies, people with sleep apnea who exercise have fewer symptoms such as daytime sleepiness and low energy.

In these studies, exercise worked within a wide range of types, amounts and frequency of exercise.  Cardiovascular exercise is most commonly used. However,  future studies are looking at strength training and mind/body exercise programs as well. 

While all that sounds great, the fatigue from sleep apnea is a major challenge when it comes to finding the motivation to exercise. So when using exercise to help withe sleep apnea, we need to be realistic if it is going to work.  Keep these tips in mind as you plan exercise when you have sleep apnea:

  • Think of exercise as small focused bouts of movement you do frequently rather than one long session you do a few times a week (i.e: 5-15 minutes of exercise or more a day)
  • Plan one bout at the time of day  you have the most energy
  • Choose types of exercise that have an inherently lower risk of injury.  Your balance, reaction time and coordination are likely effected by the lower quality sleep. 
  • Try different types of exercise and assess what types give you energy at different times of day and what types help you sleep better at night.
  • When you think you are too tired to exercise, try just a few minutes to see if it helps.  If it does, keep going. If it doesn’t, stop exercise and try another type of a different time of day. 

If you have sleep apnea, know that exercise is part of the treatment plan.  However, set yourself up for success by adjusting your expectations until your symptoms are under control.

Keep Moving, Be Well,




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by | July 3, 2019 · 6:53 pm

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