Here’s a new drug-free prescription to help insomniacs get a good night’s sleep -- regular aerobic exercise.

According to a small but significant new study from Northwestern Medicine, regular aerobic exercise improves the quality of sleep, mood and vitality.

The study is the first to examine the effect of aerobic exercise on middle-aged and older adults with a diagnosis of insomnia. About 50 percent of people in these age groups complain of chronic insomnia symptoms. The aerobic exercise trial resulted in the most dramatic improvement in patients’ reported quality of sleep, including sleep duration, compared to any other non-pharmacological intervention.

“This is relevant to a huge portion of the population,” said Phyllis Zee, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Medicine and senior author of the paper.

The lead author is Kathryn Reid, research assistant professor at Feinberg.

“Insomnia increases with age. Around middle age, sleep begins to change dramatically. It is essential that we identify behavioural ways to improve sleep. Now we have promising results showing aerobic exercise is a simple strategy to help people sleep better and feel more vigorous,” Zee said.

Reid said that the drug-free strategy also is desirable, because it eliminates the potential of a sleeping medication interacting with other drugs a person may be taking.

“Better sleep gave them pep, that magical ingredient that makes you want to get up and get out into the world to do things,” Reid added. The study is to be published in the October issue of Sleep Medicine.