By Kathleen Trotter
Contrary to how many of us live our lives, sleep is not “empty time” — it is not a “when I can fit it in” activity. Sleep affects both our long- and short-term health; it is when the body and brain regenerate, memories consolidate, cognitive functions are maintained, muscles and tissues repair, and hormones are rebalanced.
Now, most of us intellectually know that sleep is important, but knowing and doing are two different things. Too many of us, especially the slightly workaholic, A-type, dedicated, “never give in” type (me), too often frame surviving on negligible sleep as a “badge of honour.” Sacrificing sleep is not a badge of honour; it is a badge of (to frame it positively) getting lost in the excitement of the present moment and lacking a “long game” approach to health, or (to put it bluntly) unregulated priorities. Sleep has to be thought of as a “non-negotiable,” just like exercise.
Four reasons to make sleep a “non-negotiable”
- You will be more motivated to exercise!
Sleep and exercise have a wonderful symbiotic relationship. The more you sleep the more likely you will be to exercise. The more you exercise the more likely you will be to get consistent high-quality sleep.
Why? The more you sleep (and the better the quality of the sleep you get) the more energy and motivation you will have to exercise. Your body and your brain recover while you sleep. Your brain will be more alert, and your body will feel less achy and lethargic if you consistently get enough sleep, especially if you get adequate time in deep sleep (exercise helps facilitate more time in that deep sleep — another “win” for exercise).
The awesome part is, the more you exercise the better your sleep will be. Exercise helps decrease the time it takes you to get to sleep, improve the quality of your sleep, reset your sleep/wake cycle “circadian rhythm” (especially if you exercise in sunlight in the morning), decrease symptoms of sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, and manage stress and anxiety (which will help you sleep, especially if you have insomnia from anxiety). Plus, if you time the workouts correctly, ending roughly two hours before bed, the gradual decrease in body temperature post-workout can help lull you into a sleepy state.
- You will have an easier time managing your weight!
People who average less than six hours of sleep a night are 23% more likely to be overweight. People who average less than four hours of sleep a night are 73% more likely to be overweight.
Why? Health is always multifactorial, but two variables that contribute to the connection between weight and sleep are hormones and the amount of time available to eat/calories consumed.
The less you sleep the less leptin you produce, the hormone that tells your brain you are full. The less you sleep the more ghrelin you produce, the hormone that tells your brain you are hungry. The less you sleep the less orexin you produce, your activity hormone. All ‘bad news bears’ — the less you sleep the less active your hormones will want you to be, the hungrier your hormones will make you, and the less you will be able to resist food.
Plus, for most of us, the more hours we stay awake the more we eat. We eat to keep us alert as we work, because we are bored or watching TV, because we are out being social, and/or because we drank and thus our “no thank you” muscle got weaker.
I always tell myself when I want to nosh after dinner, “Nothing healthy is ever eaten after 8 PM. Go to BED or phone a friend. You are not hungry. You have had dinner. You might be lonely or tired so phone a friend or go to bed, but don’t go into the kitchen.”
- Your brain will function better!
Think of sleep as an “overnight cleaning service for your brain.” Better yet, a “car wash for your brain.” (I love imagining soap suds and swirling cleaning belts making the inside of my brain sparkle like new.)
This cleaning service (your glymphatic system) is — surprise, surprise — more active when you sleep, 60% more active to be exact.
- Your heart will be happier!
Concerned about your heart? Have high blood pressure? Have a history of cardiovascular disease? You guessed it … SLEEP!!!!!
Your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease increases by 45% when you don’t sleep; sleeping lowers blood pressure, and after long stretches of not sleeping your veins stretch and structural damage occurs.
Importance of a sleep routine
Wanting to sleep and actually being able to sleep are often two different things. After a long, fast-paced day, filled with too many screens, the body can have a hard time relaxing. Consider training your body and brain to know when to sleep with a pre-sleep routine.
- Try turning off all screens at least 30 minutes before bed.
- Next, do something that is relaxing. Have a bath (an Epsom salt bath can be especially relaxing), meditate, or do some deep breathing, gentle yoga, or stretching, or lie on a foam roller. A foam roller is a long, cylindrical object made of dense foam. Lying on it lengthwise with my arms out to the side and breathing helps me relax and release my achy and tired muscles.
- Consider drinking a soothing sleepy-time herbal tea such as chamomile, or a tea with valerian root in it.
- Last, persevere; don’t give up if your first bedtime ritual doesn’t work. Keep experimenting until you find what works for you.
Sleep has to be a priority. It’s a linchpin habit, a “top domino.” Improving the consistency and quality of your sleep will cause a positive health cascade including improved cognitive function, memory, cardiovascular health, mental clarity, energy, and motivation to exercise!
Kathleen Trotter holds a masters in Exercise Science, is the author of two books including the new book Your Fittest Future Self, and is a Personal trainer, Nutritionist, Pilates Specialist and Life Coach.