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Getting too much sleep, having difficulty falling asleep, or taking sleeping pills dramatically increases a person’s risk of premature death, a 2022 study found. But getting plenty of exercise offsets this risk, effectively canceling out the harms of poor sleep patterns.

Researchers tracked the health, physical activity, and sleep patterns of more than 340,000 adults for 15 years. They calculated the metabolic equivalent (MET) of the participants' physical activity – a ratio of their working metabolic rate relative to their resting metabolic rate. (For example, bicycling at a moderate pace (12-14 mph) is considered 8.0 METs.) Then they calculated MET-hours per week by multiplying the exercise intensity by frequency and duration.

They found that compared to sleeping six to eight hours per night, sleeping more than eight hours per night increased a person’s risk of dying from all causes of premature death by 30 percent, from cardiovascular disease by 29 percent, and from cancer by 13 percent.

Having difficulty falling asleep increased the risk of dying from all causes of premature death by 12 percent and from cardiovascular disease by 16 percent. Using sleeping pills roughly doubled this risk, increasing the risk of premature death by 26 percent and of cardiovascular disease-related death by 34 percent.

However, engaging in 15 or more MET-hours per week of physical activity appeared to offset the harmful effects of long sleep duration, difficulty falling asleep, or using sleeping pills. Engaging in 30 or more MET-hours per week provided even more robust protection, effectively canceling out the harmful effects.

These findings underscore the importance of getting sufficient, quality sleep for maintaining human health and longevity. They also suggest that exercise can compensate for poor sleep patterns. Learn more about the importance of sleep in this episode featuring Dr. Matthew Walker.

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