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Sitting less, sleeping better – How women can reduce their sleep apnea risk

Posted on March 12th, 2024

Sedentary lifestyles have become the norm. Many people spend hours sitting at their desks at work or resting on their sofas when they’re home. They don’t get up and move around nearly as often as they should, even though they know it’s good for them.

A sedentary lifestyle can negatively impact people’s health in several ways. A sedentary lifestyle is linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Sitting for long periods can also lead to muscle stiffness, back pain, and poor posture. 

Additionally, emerging research suggests that sedentary behavior may have implications for sleep health, especially among women.

Sedentary behavior may increase women’s sleep apnea risk 

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. It can lead to a range of health issues, including daytime fatigue, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease. Sleep apnea is more commonly diagnosed in men. However, research shows that sedentary behavior may increase women’s risk of sleep apnea.

A recent study discovered that people who sit for more than 8 hours a day are at a higher risk of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) than those who sit for less than 4 hours. The study, led by Song Cai and SiYu Li from Zunyi Medical University in China, found this association to be more pronounced in women.

Prolonged sitting can lead to obesity and fluid retention, both of which are risk factors for OSA. According to the Sleep Foundation, a 10% weight gain is linked to a sixfold increase in a person’s OSA risk. Due to the connection between OSA and obesity, the researchers wanted to investigate the relationship between sedentary behavior and obstructive sleep apnea.

The study included 20,115 participants aged 18 or older, 50.75% of whom were women. Researchers assessed participants’ OSA using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Then, they examined participants’ sedentary behavior through a physical activity questionnaire and put them into 4 categories based on the amount of time they spent sitting:

  1. Less than 4 hours per day
  2. 4 hours to less than 6 hours per day
  3. 6 hours to 8 hours per day
  4. More than 8 hours per day

After adjusting for various factors, the researchers found that participants who sat for more than 8 hours a day had a higher risk of OSA compared to those who sat for less than 4 hours a day. Participants who sat for 6 to 8 hours a day also had a higher risk of developing OSA, although not as high as those who sat for more than 8 hours.

Stratified analysis showed that sedentary behavior was not significantly associated with OSA in men but it was in women. Older participants also had a stronger link between sedentary behavior and OSA.

The researchers noted limitations of the study, including self-reported symptoms and the study’s cross-sectional nature, which cannot prove causality. Further studies are needed to explore the mechanisms underlying the association between sedentary behavior and obstructive sleep apnea. 

How women can reduce their sleep apnea risk

Reducing women’s sleep apnea risk involves lifestyle changes and habits that can benefit their overall well-being. Some OSA risk factors like age and genetics cannot be changed. However, women can take steps to lower their risk of developing OSA by living a more active and healthy lifestyle.

Incorporate regular physical activity.

Engaging in regular physical activity helps maintain a healthy weight.  Activities like walking, jogging, swimming, or yoga are beneficial and don’t require any equipment to perform. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise that elevates your heart rate most days of the week.

Focus on throat muscle exercises.

Specific exercises that target the muscles in the throat can reduce the severity of sleep apnea. Singing, playing wind instruments, or doing throat exercises recommended by a speech therapist or sleep specialist are all helpful. Examples of throat exercises include the following: 

  • Tongue presses – Press the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth and hold for a few seconds. Then, press the back of your tongue against the floor of your mouth and hold. Repeat several times.
  • Vowel pronunciation – Say each vowel (A, E, I, O, U) out loud, exaggerating the movement of your mouth and throat muscles as you do so.
  • Swallowing exercises – Practice swallowing without taking a drink. Repeat this process several times.

Maintain a healthy weight.

Excess weight, especially around the neck, can increase women’s risk of sleep apnea. Eating a balanced diet and following portion control can help manage weight. Consulting with a healthcare provider or nutritionist can provide personalized guidance.

Avoid smoking and limit alcohol consumption.

Smoking can increase inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway, worsening sleep apnea symptoms. Similarly, alcohol relaxes the throat muscles, increasing the risk of airway obstruction during sleep. Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake can reduce these risks.

Practice good sleep hygiene.

Establishing a regular sleep schedule, creating a comfortable sleep environment, and avoiding large meals, caffeine, and electronic devices before bedtime can improve sleep quality and reduce the risk of sleep apnea.

Consider a sleep study.

If you experience symptoms of sleep apnea, such as loud snoring, daytime fatigue, or waking up gasping for air, consider undergoing a sleep study, also known as polysomnography. A sleep study can help diagnose sleep apnea and guide appropriate treatment options.

By incorporating these lifestyle changes, women can reduce their risk of developing sleep apnea associated with sedentary behavior. Prioritizing physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and adopting good sleep habits can improve women’s health and quality of life.

If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, it’s important to speak with a healthcare professional. They can recommend further testing and treatment options, which may include continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, oral appliances, or lifestyle changes.

Dr. Meghna Dassani has practiced dentistry for over two decades and is passionate about the role dentists play in whole-body health. You can learn more at her website:

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