I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the role sleep plays in our overall health and fitness pursuits. It’s a factor often discounted, placed well behind training and diet. We weight and measure our food, we diligently count reps and record times, but we get home and put bedtime off for a few hours in favor of watching our favorite TV show or surfing the internet. I’ve been guilty of it myself – staying up late writing blog posts but still dragging my butt out of bed at 5 AM for a workout. I would think, “Suck it up – once you get up and slam a coffee, you’ll feel much better.” And I prided myself on my discipline and motivation that early in the morning.
Let’s face it – our Western society encourages this. I won’t even get into our long work weeks, self-created family demands, or the technology distractions that keep us up late and wake us up early. No, I’ll just wrap all of that up by saying that somehow along the way, functioning on less sleep has become a point of pride, and a trait to be admired. You shake your head in awe at the guy who claims he runs just fine on five hours of sleep a night. He’s a superhero, the model of efficiency, a Person Who Gets Things Done. I’m here to tell you, he is also sorely mistaken. NOBODY runs really, truly well on five hours of sleep a night. He may think he’s doing just fine, but Google “lack of sleep” + “(insert disease here)” and you’ll quickly realize that sleep deprivation will smuck up a whole host of bodily systems, and contributes (in part) to stress, inflammation, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. As one University of Chicago researcher puts it, “Lack of sleep disrupts every physiologic function in the body… (and) we have nothing in our biology that allows us to adapt to this behavior.”
And here’s where I hit all your 30 day’ers where it hurts. I’m not just talking about sleep affecting your recovery from training, or reducing your stress… no, I’m pulling out the big guns. While diet plays a crucial role in body composition, sleep also plays a significant role… specifically, in fat loss. There are all kinds of studies relating sleep to insulin resistance, leptin levels and cortisol levels… all related to fat loss. Robb Wolf also has a great post on the effects of sleep on those pesky love handles – read the article and all the comments for the details. And here is a quick abstract that gives you yet another reason why getting that 8-9 hours of sleep a night is CRUCIAL to fat loss. (Have I said “fat loss” enough? Do I have your attention?)
So, it looks like we’ve been missing the bus here. Sleep is more than just lovely – in fact, from everything I’ve been reading and researching, my working theory is that getting good sleep is the second most important success factor in your health and fitness pursuits. That’s right, NUMBER TWO… just behind cleaning up your diet, and AHEAD of perfecting your training routine. I’ve been preaching sleep to my clients for a few weeks now, and I’m about to step up my game with the rest of you blog readers. Think of sleep as a factor JUST as important as whether you’re eating grains and dairy, or how often you’re picking up heavy stuff. Experiment, just as you did with some dietary factors. Try getting 8+ hours of sleep every single night for two weeks, and see how you feel. And don’t tell me you can’t, because you have some special circumstance that the rest of us don’t. We all work, we all have families, and friends, and outside pursuits, and stress. Figure out how to make it happen, because it’s as worthy a pursuit as changing every aspect of your diet was more than thirty days ago. Easier said than done, I’ll give you that, but Mercola has some good tips on how to improve the quality of your sleep. And consider getting the book Lights Out – Sleep, Sugar and Survival for what I have heard is a good read on the subject. (I just ordered it, in an effort to educate myself a bit more about the importance of sleep as a factor in nutritional and performance coaching.)
By the way – I AM taking my own advice, I assure you. Yesterday morning, my alarm went off at 5 AM for the gym. It was a less than stellar night, however, as I was up tossing and turning until after 11 PM. So I turned my alarm off and slept until the sun woke me up at 7:20. My “training” that day consisted of eating really well, taking all my fish oil and getting a massage to help me de-stress. THAT’S what I did to take care of myself, and I know it did me far more good than dragging my bleary-eyed butt out of bed for some mediocre met-con action.
So do your homework, plan ahead and turn the lights out nice and early tonight. And if anyone does take me up on my two week Sleep-A-Palooza, let me know how it goes.