(^ working on my fitness, seriously)
When people decide that they want to begin making changes in their life to improve their health and fitness, the first things people think about are often changing their nutritional habits, and of course hitting the gym, walking, or jogging. It is also common for already dedicated people who want even more fitness to think that the answer to gaining more strength/fitness is going to be an extra session a week, or longer workouts, or heavier Metcons. We think we need to do more, eat less, etc. Sure these strategies can work, but there is an often overlooked strategy for better health and fitness that is more simple, easier, and more enjoyable.
I am talking about sleep.
Massively successful media mogul Ariana Huffington wrote a book about the importance of sleep and how our society has fetishized not needing sleep and how detrimental this can be. She quipped that we should aim to “sleep our way to the top” which is meant to be literal and not an innuendo. If you want to be functioning at your best, you need to sleep. “Sleep is for the weak” is a common saying, which is major bullshit.
To put in bluntly...More like lack of sleep will make you weak, fat, sore, and stupid.
If you do not sleep enough you are not performing optimally. Period. Lack of sleep can have major impact on your health. Studies show that untreated sleep problems, especially sleep apnea, can increase the risk of obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. This is because lack of sleep messes with your insulin response. So, if you got less than six hours of sleep, the following day you will actually be a pre-diabetic, which means you are going to be more sensitive to carbohydrates and to add insult to injury you are going to crave them more. In other words after a poor nights sleep, bad food is going to be worse for you and you will want it more.
*If I sleep less than 6.5 hours, I generally do not eat more than 15-20 grams of carbs the next day. Extreme, but seems to help my energy levels that day.
Lack of sleep can also be a major contributor to mental health problems. Personally as someone who has had a lot of concussions and major depressive disorder, if I do not get enough sleep, I notice a major effect on my mental functioning and that dark cloud begins following me again. This has been made apparent with the amount of overnight flights I have had this winter. It takes me 1-2 full weeks to get back on track.
If you are an athlete, you need to remember that you don’t gain muscle in the gym. You actually gain muscle/strength when you are sleeping. If you are training your ass off, but then not sleeping enough, you are wasting your time in the gym. Furthermore lack of sleep can lead to inflammation which will make old injuries and joints sore.
If you are trying to learn or study for a test, guess when the bulk of learning takes place/memories are formed. When you sleep. If you are studying for a big exam, you should never stay up late to cram, because during sleep is when what you studied will become part of you. I have also read somewhere before that if you get less than 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night you are mentally functioning at a level on par with where your mental functioning would be with a blood alcohol level .08 (the level of legal intoxication in most places).
To sum it up, here is what you are sacrificing when you don’t get enough sleep:
-Your ability to recover from training and perform optimally.
-Normal insulin function
As Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic, put it, "Sleep is the most underrated health habit.”
Now I realize that if you have a baby, young kids, you are a shift-worker, etc. that getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night might be difficult. But I would argue that if you are concerned with your health and fitness that before you worry about making time for the gym, starting a meal-plan, etc. you should first make sure you are getting enough sleep.
Sleep is a pre-requisite to healthy functioning and fitness.
It may surprise some people to see the order of my fitness hierarchy. If I could go back in time to when I was a competitor, this wouldn't change.
#1- Sleep (7.5 hours minimum a night)
#2- Nutrition (High Food Quality + Hitting my Macros + Prioritizing Fat > Protein > Carbs)
My favourite thing to do is train, but I have to earn it with proper sleep and nutrition. If I don’t get enough sleep, for whatever reason, I generally do not train. If I train without enough sleep, my joints are sore, my thoughts are negative, and my performance is low. This is when injuries happen.
I recently blogged about chasing the “perfect feeling”. Getting adequate sleep DOES NOT fall into that category. Getting adequate sleep should not be a luxury.
So, hopefully I have built up some cognitive dissonance in that brain, and you are considering the importance of sleep. With that in mind here are some tips on helping you get more quality sleep.
Set The Mood
As an overarching theme or mindset you can think of implementing, which will include some of the action steps I include below, is to set the mood or seduce yourself into sleeping.
After a hectic busy day, we are going to be stuck in that mode unless we actively try to calm down. So, when it comes time to sleep if you are ripping around the house with bright lights on and listening to Sandstorm by Darude you aren’t going to be able to sleep any time soon. If you dim the lights, light some candles, turn off all screens, listen to soft music, and focus on slowing your breathe-rate, then you’ve got a fighting chance. Put yourself in the mood first, and it will be much easier to relax into a nice sleep.
Make your room pitch black!
-Our eyes are extremely sensitive to light, and when we see light of any kind, that is a stimulus which will make the brain want to work to figure it out. For the bulk of human history (and we are talking from the beginning of humanoids until like 150 years ago) when it was night time it was pitch black. No street-lights, no buzzing signs from wal-mart, no bright alarm clock, no screen-saver on the computer, no late night news. When the sun went down it became dark AF, and this is when people started to wind down and sleep. So, it is important for optimal sleep that when you turn off the lights your room is completely dark. This means blinds that seal out any light from the window, and that all screens, buttons and lights are off. If this is not possible, then wear an eye-cover or wrap a bandana around your head like I do.
The tv, the cell-phone, the ipad, etc. All of these screens are extremely bright, and can fool your body into thinkings it is day time and not time to sleep. So a great practise is to shut off all screens one hour before it is time to sleep. You will be able to relax more leading up to sleep-time. Grab a book instead, do some stretching, make love, whatever, just don’t stare at a screen as bright as the sun until five minutes before you want to sleep and expect yourself to be ready to wind down.
Wifi-off. I am sure this has happened to everyone before. You are just about ready to fall asleep and then the phone buzzes, dingles, or vibrates. You perk up, and curiosity always wins so you must check the notification (great another picture of Stacey's cat... that was necessary). You spend a few minutes or seconds looking at a bright screen again then it is starting from square one to try to fall asleep. Even a notification or buzz in the middle of the night is enough to throw off your sleep patterns. Your phone will survive without internet until the morning! You will too!
This should be an obvious one. Just like our eyes, our ears are going to be busy if there is a noise. So, if you live downtown or with noisy roommates one of the best things you can do is sleep with ear-plugs in. This is complicated if your partner snores. I could make a pretty solid argument that separate beds leading to better sleep quality will lead to a better relationship as opposed to sleeping like shit just to be beside significant other.
If you do end up having a bad sleep, napping is great. You will combat some of the ill effects of a poor sleep and find that you function much better that day. A nap can be anywhere from 5 minutes up to an hour if you have the time. Napping is good to go!
Seeing how much you can do without sleep is not a display of mastery. You will be putting out sub-par work even though in your lack of sleep stupor you may be able to convince yourself otherwise. If you want to lose that extra bit of body-fat around your tummy, more sleep is just as important as less carbs. If you are wondering why you aren't getting stronger, the issue may be lack of sleep. If you want to smash that test, study, then sleep! If you don't want to age prematurely, sleep. Respect your body and sleep, sleep, sleep.
PS- A good barometer of how your sleep quality and lifestyle is how you feel when you wake up. If all is well you should wake up happy, hungry, and... horny. Sweet dreams!
Grit Human Performance