When we think about lifestyle factors that affect our health, most of us think about diet and exercise. Namely, while we can’t change the genes we’re born with, we can control how we eat and move and we associate a healthy diet and regular exercise with lower disease risk and longer lifespans. While this is true, to stop at diet and exercise means we ignore a third, equally important lifestyle variable: sleep. Your Small Steps assignment this month is to develop strategies to make sure you’re getting enough of it.
Connecting Sleep to Fitness
It’s no wonder the average person equates fitness with diet and exercise without much consideration for sleep because science is relatively new to the study of sleep’s role in fitness and health. We’re now coming to understand diet, exercise and sleep are deeply interconnected. Here are just a few of the ways that diet and exercise are connected to quality sleep:
- Studies have shown insufficient amounts of quality sleep negatively affect appetite and satiety hormones, causing people to overeat during the day.
- These same studies show poor sleep habits also negatively affect stress hormones, resulting in poor diet choices, moodiness and anxiety.
- People who exercise regularly tend to have fewer instances of insomnia and other sleep problems.
- People who get enough sleep tend to exercise more than those who don’t.
- Those who exercise vigorously or for long stretches most days a week need more sleep for muscle and cell recovery.
- People who don’t get enough regular sleep are at higher risk for obesity, more likely to be sedentary, have lower immunity and lower energy levels. These conditions raise the risks for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression.
The take away is, if fitness is your goal, a lack of quality sleep will work against you no matter how many positive changes you make to your diet and exercise routines.
Generally speaking, adults need 7½ to 8½ hours of sleep every 24 hour period. But, each person has a unique circadian rhythm. Some may fall below the average, needing only seven hours (or less) to be fully rested, others may need nine hours (or more). Also, while an early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine will work for some, it won’t work for everyone.
Sleep experts suggest finding your sleep sweet spot by setting aside several nights in a row (best done over a vacation), go to bed when you’re tired and allow yourself to wake up on your own. This will tell you how many hours of sleep you need and the ideal times to go to bed and wake up.
Of course, your ideal wake-up time may be fine for vacation but incompatible with real life. Though, it can work as a starting point to train your body to accept a new wake-up time. For example, suppose you discover during your vacation sleep experiment that you’re fully rested when you have eight hours of sleep and that going to bed at 11pm and waking up at 7am is most natural to you. But, you need to get up by 6am to get to work on time. When you return home, move your bed time back by 15 minutes, one week at a time, until you can go to bed and fall asleep relatively easily at 10pm.
This month, hone these strategies for falling asleep at bedtime and staying asleep until wake-up time:
- Avoid caffeine & alcohol 1-2 hours before bedtime. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, adjust the cut-off time for caffeinated beverages & food accordingly.
- Don’t view anything with a backlit screen at least one hour before turning in.
- Keep your bedroom fully dark during the night and stay in well lit areas during the day.
- If you must have a clock at your bedside, turn it away from viewing when you go to bed.
- Don’t keep cell phones in your bedroom while you sleep. If you need it for the alarm feature, put it in a place out of reach from your bed and silence all other notifications, including texts, calls, emails, weather/news alerts & social media updates.
- Make your pre-bedtime routine calm & relaxing and follow the same routine each night.
- Ensure that you’re fully nourished and hydrated 2-4 hours before bedtime.
- Exercise regularly, though it’s not advised to exercise within an hour of bedtime.
While you’re working on your sleep, don’t forget the equally easy-going Small Steps summer assignment that began last month – Reflect, Revamp & Renew. To recap, keep a daily journal and reflect upon your entries to identify your fitness preferences and the barriers to achieving your goals; revamp your short-term goals to make them in line with your personal fitness journey; renew your commitment to fitness by developing sustainable and relevant long-term goals.
The July and August Small Steps work in tandem because journaling will help you track your current sleep habits and develop healthier ones to meet your sleep goals. Meshing your diet, exercise and sleep goals together gives you a balanced approach to achieve fitness success. Reflect, revamp, renew and sleep your way through the remainder of these lazy, hazy days of summer.
If you’re new to the Small Steps series, you can read about the philosophy and strategies of the series here. Know the Small Steps strategies don’t need to be done in any particular order and are independent of one another. So, you can begin the series with this post, continue throughout the rest of the year and pick up what you missed next year.
Previous Small Steps posts: January’s Portion Control, February’s Plan Ahead, March’s Accentuate the Positives, Eliminate the Negatives, April’s Substitutions, May’s Go Old School, June’s +1, July’s Reflect, Revamp & Renew.