- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2001

Having trouble getting to sleep? Taking a look at your bedtime habits might provide a simple way to remedy the problem, says Dr. Richard Hoffman, a sleep specialist at Inova Alexandria Hospital.

Some points to remember:

• Get some exercise but not right before bed.

"Try to exercise five or six hours before bed," says Dr. Peter Hauri, director of the insomnia program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "Try to do at least 20 minutes of intense aerobic exercise where your target heart rate is elevated. Recent research has shown that insomniacs have an elevated heart rate. Exercise artificially increases the heart rate so a person is calm by bedtime."

But exercising in the morning will not have the same effect, Dr. Hauri says, so aim for a late-afternoon jog or dance class.

• Watch the caffeine. Dr. Hoffman recommends avoiding caffeinated foods within six hours of bedtime.

• Try to have the same bedtime each night and get up at the same time each morning. This can be easier said than done for shift workers and students, Dr. Hoffman says.

• Use the bedroom only for sleeping. That means no bill-paying, paperwork or other stressful activities that might keep you awake.

• Avoid television. Dr. Hoffman says the bright light from the screen can affect circadian rhythms.

Dr. Hauri doesn't necessarily agree, however.

"In my judgment, it is better to distract the mind if you can't sleep," he says. "Watching the VCR is better than the TV because TV programming can remind you of what time it is. As long as trying to sleep is the enemy of sleep, you might as well do something like read or watch a movie."

• Turn the clock away from the bed. Insomniacs will only be reminded of their plight if they have big, illuminated numerals staring back at them, Dr. Hoffman says.

Dr. Hauri suggests placing the clock on the other side of the room, where it will be out of the line of vision, but still close enough to hear the alarm in the morning.

• Think about how much time you really need to sleep. Most insomniacs stay in bed too long, which stresses them even more, Dr. Hauri says.

"You should think about how much time you need to sleep, then readjust," he says. "By the time you are 70 to 80 years old, you need a half-hour less sleep each night. If you are a person for whom six hours was enough when you were younger, then plan on getting even less than that. One of the most misdone things insomniacs do is spend too much time in bed. If you cut down, such as go to sleep later, then sleep will follow."

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