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Exercise and other forms of physical activity elicit a wide range of beneficial health effects, including improvements in glucose tolerance and mitochondrial function. Findings from a new study suggest that high-intensity exercise compensates for the harmful effects of sleep deprivation.

Sleep is critical for our mental and physical well-being. Sleep deprivation increases our risk of developing many chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, kidney dysfunction, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression. More than a third of all adults living in the United States report regular short sleep duration.

The intervention study involved 24 healthy young men between the ages of 18 and 40 years. The study’s investigators placed the men into one of three groups: normal sleep (eight hours per night, for five nights); sleep restriction (four hours per night, for five nights); and sleep restriction/exercise (four hours per night, for five nights plus three high-intensity interval exercise sessions on a cycle ergometer). They assessed the participants' glucose tolerance, mitochondrial function, sarcoplasmic protein synthesis (a proxy for mitochondrial protein synthesis), and skin temperature before and after the intervention. Sarcoplasmic protein synthesis and skin temperature fluctuate in a diurnal manner due to circadian rhythms, which are altered with poor sleep.

The men who experienced sleep restriction had reduced glucose tolerance and mitochondrial function. They also exhibited reduced amplitude of diurnal rhythms. However, the men who experienced sleep restriction but engaged in high-intensity exercise did not exhibit any of these effects.

These findings demonstrate that high-intensity exercise may counteract the harmful effects of sleep deprivation and suggest that clinicians should recommend exercise to patients who experience poor sleep as a means to improve metabolic health.

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