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More Physical Activity and Less Sitting are Linked to Lower Sleep Apnea Risk

Medically reviewed by Smita Patel, DO, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 11, 2023

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea. Around 25 million Americans currently suffer from the condition, which occurs when the muscles at the back of the throat relax during sleep, causing them to block the airway. When this happens, you may stop breathing for between 10 to 20 seconds, which causes the brain to panic and partially wake you to restart your breathing. Many people may experience up to 30 OSA episodes every hour, which means they suffer several disrupted sleep cycles and poor sleep quality throughout the night.


Issues associated with OSA


This sleep disruption associated with OSA often leads to several issues for sufferers. These include excessive daytime sleepiness the following day, leading to difficulty focusing and concentrating, and a dry mouth or sore throat in the morning. Other negative health outcomes may be chest pains, morning headaches, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure.


If left untreated, sleep apnea can be life-threatening.  Sleep apnea can raise a person’s risk of developing heart disease and suffering a stroke, heart failure, or heart attack.


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Sleep Apnea - Overview

Sleep Apnea - Overview

Treatments for OSA


Some of the treatments for OSA focus on active lifestyle changes. Research has shown that reducing your weight by 10% can lower the number of OSA episodes per hour by 26%, as can moderate activity. Similarly, reducing your alcohol consumption and quitting smoking are also recommended lifestyle changes that can result in health benefits for OSA patients.


As well as lifestyle changes, positive airway pressure (PAP) devices are crucial in the treatment process. The devices pump air into the airway via a hose that ensures that the airway remains open while you sleep. The most common devices are continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines that blow continuously into the airway to keep it open. Though positive airway pressure is often an effective treatment, oral appliances are an alternative for some people with mild or moderate obstructive sleep apnea. Sometimes a surgical procedure, uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP), where your doctor removes tissue from the back of your mouth and top of your throat, can help relieve OSA.  


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Sleep Apnea - Treatment

Sleep Apnea - Treatment

More Physical Activity and Less Sitting


A new study published recently in the European Respiratory Journal looked into the relationship between exercise, sedentary behavior, and OSA. Specifically, the study examined the combined effects of watching less TV and performing more physical activity on lowering the risk of developing OSA. 


Their research showed several positive effects that more exercise and less sedentary time had on OSA risk factors. Participants who did the equivalent of three hours of strenuous activity per week had a 54% lower risk of developing OSA than those who did two hours of moderate-intensity exercise or mild activity per week.


The study also found that people who spent on average four sedentary hours a day watching TV were 78% more likely to develop OSA than people with the least amount of sedentary hours. Similarly, those who worked a mainly sedentary job had a 49% increased risk of OSA than the least sedentary people.


Although the research was based on self-reported data that is typically considered less reliable, the study appears to reinforce existing evidence that more physical activity and fewer sedentary hours lowers OSA incidence.


New research is ongoing into what causes OSA and how it can be treated. However, less interest is focused on preventing it. The currently accepted treatment methods are to make positive lifestyle changes. These may include losing weight, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, improving sleeping positions, and exercising regularly. The new research highlights the potential benefits that increased physical activity levels and less sitting may have on preventing people from getting OSA in the first place.


Written by Chaim Ford

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