For as long as humans have been around, we have required nightly sleep in order to restore our bodies.
We all know we need 7-9 hours of sleep a night, but many of us try to push the limits and get by with less. It’s almost a badge of honor that starts as early as the teenage years. The perception that functioning on less sleep makes us superhuman or better than others is pervasive and harmful.
I only slept 4 hours last night! I got so much accomplished after the kids went to bed.
Implied – you should feel guilty that you slept so much.
I pulled an all nighter to finish that project.
Implied – I’m amazing and have the ability to push through to complete any task.
You sleep 8 hours at night? I only need 4-5 hours.
Implied – I’m better than you because I can get less sleep and still function.
The rat race begins early on in our lives. We are pushed so hard at such young ages and it’s only getting worse. You have to be the best to get into the best college. Then, as we get older, our merit and our level of success is based on our ability in managing our time and prioritizing projects. You’d think as we reach post-school adulthood, we’d realize it’s time to settle down and finally get some sleep. But, we live in a never-enough society and we are often driven by pressures to “do it all.” When there are only 24 hours in a day, something’s got to give.
Many people feel that “everyone” is sleepless and somehow that makes it ok. The people you idolize seem to do it all, why can’t you? Chances are, the person “doing it all” has help that you don’t know about or is suffering greatly.
Most Adults Don’t Sleep Enough
30% of adults report sleeping 6 hours or less a night and ⅓ of adults have sleep-related complaints. Insomnia and sleep disordered breathing (like sleep apnea) are common complaints in a family doctor’s office. To the dismay of many, the workup includes searching for a cause and the treatment is almost always CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).
Studies have made it extremely clear that sleep is essential for optimal health. Deep sleep is when our brains process and store all the things we learned during the day! It helps the nervous system and digestive systems reset. Countless studies have linked insufficient sleep with disrupted hunger hormones and numerous metabolic conditions. Some of the scariest findings from studies have shown that lack of sleep can lead to disease and eventually can create a resistance to treating blood pressure.
“But I’m too tired to exercise”
I often hear people say they are too tired to exercise. But the fact is, exercise can actually improve the amount of quality sleep you get. Exercise is strongly connected to sleep quality and we have found that adults with insomnia and sleep disordered breathing are less likely to be physically active. We don’t know which influences which, or if they influence each other. I have mentioned a few studies that have provided some interesting associations:
Looking At The Research
One study looked at older adults with insomnia. After 4 months of cardio they record significant improvement in sleep quality and decreased daytime sleepiness. BONUS – less depressive symptoms were reported.
Another study looked at adding a mix of exercise and strength training over 12 weeks and amazingly enough, It found a decrease in sleep apnea severity. And the kicker – weight loss was less than 2lb! Many (not all) people with sleep apnea carry excess weight based on a BMI chart, which can be a direct cause of sleep apnea. Many think that the only way to treat the disorder is by focusing on the weight loss itself. You all know my thoughts of focusing solely on weight loss, so it was great to see proof that symptoms can improve even if weight loss doesn’t occur!
Interestingly enough, nightly variations in sleep have been found to predict physical activity for the following day. People who woke up earlier participated in more physical activity. Exercise can shift your circadian rhythm based on when you exercise. So if you’re struggling with getting up early, try exercising in the morning to help facilitate this shift.
Takings Steps Towards Better Sleep, and Better Health
So what can we learn from this? First, higher quality sleep is linked with increased physical activity. We don’t know cause and effect, but the associations are interesting and worth considering. This also goes back to my take on risk-benefit. How much risk is there to exercising? How much risk is there to getting up earlier and going to bed earlier? The low risk is very obvious and the potential for benefits when we take a step back and look at the bigger picture is huge.
Second, we know that poor sleep is tied with numerous diseases. These are diseases that have a lot of morbidity (complications) and even mortality (death) associated with them. Plus, many of which have big price tags over the lifespan of an individual. If a low-cost, low-risk intervention could potentially mitigate even a fraction of these adverse outcomes and doctor bills, why would we not advocate for them? In the world of evidence-based medicine, we are sometimes too focused on having a perfect study to prove cause and effect.
Association paired with a low-risk and low-cost intervention is a strong enough reason for me to advocate for an approach. Especially when we remember there is a person at the center of all this. A person who may experience those adverse outcomes and huge health care bill.
Final Words of Advice
If you don’t take home anything else, take home this – exercise for at least 30 min a day in order to sleep better, help prevent disease, promote health and feel amazing.
Have you found exercise helps you sleep better? Have you found that when you’re rested you are more likely to exercise? Leave your experience below!