By Denis Faye
Sometimes, people get so caught up in their hard-core exercise workouts and cutting calories that they forget that half of getting great results is recovery. And one of the greatest tools in the recovery arsenal is a good night’s sleep. It heals your mind and your body and, frankly, just makes you feel good.
But getting 8 hours between the sheets isn’t always as easy as it sounds. If you’re like most of us, you probably didn’t sleep well last night. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2010 Sleep in America poll talked to over a thousand people across the ethnic spectrum between the ages of 25 and 60, and found that the average American sleeps 6 to 7 hours a night. This lack of a solid 8 hours leaves them feeling continually fatigued and has a wide-reaching impact, from the workplace to the car to the bedroom. (Which is to say, the things you do in the bedroom besides sleeping, if you know what I mean.)
For you health and fitness fanatics, a lack of sleep also impacts your ability to stay in tip-top shape, from performance to weight loss. A study last year out of Stanford noted that when the school’s women’s tennis team sawed logs for 10 hours or more a night over a 5- to 6-week period, their baseline sprint times improved by more than 1.5 seconds. Their hitting accuracy and depth also improved.
“Traditionally, elite athletes dedicate numerous hours to daily practice, strength training, and conditioning as well as work closely with nutritionists in hopes of optimizing their athletic performance,” said study lead author Cheri Mah, in a rather long-winded and difficult-to-truncate quote. “However, very little, if any, attention is focused on an athlete’s sleeping patterns and habits. While most athletes and coaching staff may believe that sleep is an important contributing factor in sports, many do not realize that optimal or peak performance can only occur when an athlete’s sleep and sleep habits are optimal.”
But if picking up a couple seconds on the tennis court isn’t important to you, a good night’s rest can also improve your ability to eat right. A number of studies have shown that a lack of sleep lowers levels of leptin and ghrelin, two hormones in your brain that act as appetite suppressants. Research from the University of Chicago showed that sleeping for a measly 4 hours over the course of one night increased subjects’ appetites for high-carb foods by 45 percent!
It’s hard to argue with these facts, but even as I write this, I can hear you grumbling, “Whatever! I’d love to sleep more, but 8 to 10 hours a night? Like that’s going to happen.” Honestly, I’m prone to agree, but even if that block o’ eight isn’t attainable, here are a few tricks to try to sneak in a little extra sleep or at least improve the quality of the slumber you do get.
Get that little extra sleep tips:
- Power naps! So you stayed up to catch the Late Late Show and then had to get up at the crack of dawn to pack your brood off to school. Now you’re pooped. If you have 20 minutes, grab yourself 20 zzzs. A small study out of the University of California, Berkeley, showed that people who grabbed themselves a quickie performed 20 percent better on a series of memory exercises.
- Go snackless. If you can’t go for quantity, at least go for quality. Many people, particularly those who like to eat before bed, have written off late-night snacks warnings as old wives’ tales. Well, before you plow into your Taco Bell® Fourthmeal, consider a study out of Northwest University showing that mice that ate a high-fat diet when they were supposed to be sleeping incurred a 48 percent weight increase. Mice that ate the same diet, but at the proper time, only experienced a 20 percent weight increase. The theory behind this is that night eating interferes with your body’s circadian rhythms, which again affects your leptin levels. So, while it may seem like you’re scratching an itch with that taco, you’re actually increasing your hunger in the long run.
- Push Play. Simply put, exercise poops you out! The Journal of the American Medical Association did a study on the impact of exercise on older adults with moderate sleep-related complaints. They split 43 healthy men and women between the ages of 50 and 76 into two groups. One group exercised moderately, meaning 30- to 40-minute aerobics classes four times a week, for 16 weeks. The other group made no changes to their lifestyles. By the end of the study, the exercisers reported more improvement in their quality of sleep than the control group.
Of course, it’s best not to do this before bed. The time before sleep should be all about repose, so make sure you . . .
- Wind down right. A lot of people feel the boob tube is ideal for easing into bedtime. In fact, it’s a fairly stimulating activity, and just like cruising the interweb or hunting human prey, it’s not an ideal way to change gears. “The hour before bed is an important time to relax and wind down before going to sleep,” explained Thomas J. Balkin, PhD, Chairman of the National Sleep Foundation. “For those who are having problems sleeping, it’s a good idea to consider whether your bedtime routines may be too alerting.”
So tonight, consider reading a book, meditating, listening to some mellow music, or gentle stretching instead. You’ll be sleeping like a rock in no time. And after that good night’s sleep, have a powerful workout!