Improve your sleep to improve your fitness
Our culture encourages us to seek transformation through fitness. We grind hard, track progress, and reward ourselves for losing weight and gaining strength. But as we push our boundaries in physical performance, the most critical aspect of our fitness often takes the backseat: sleep.
While the importance of rest is now more recognized than it was a decade ago, many of us are still plagued by the advice doled out to us in the past. "Sleep when you're dead." "No rest until you're done." "Sleep is for the weak." "Burn the midnight oil." Many of these phrases suggest that the choice to forego sleep is evidence of strength, dedication, and productivity.
However, it is the exact opposite. Consistent and adequate sleep is crucial for health, well-being, and performance in every domain. Let's jump into why sleep deserves more attention, not less, from high performers everywhere.
Quality sleep gives athletes their edge
If there's one group of people who intimately understand the importance of sleep, it's competitive athletes. Sleep has been proven as a critical ingredient in athletes' abilities to perform and recover.
A recent research review summarizes just how dramatic and broad the impacts of sleep are. When an athlete is sleep deprived, reaction time, accuracy, vigor, strength, and endurance all suffer, as well as cognitive functions such as judgment and decision-making. On the other hand, getting more sleep has been shown to enhance reaction times, mood, sprint times, tennis serve accuracy, swim turns, kick stroke efficiency, and increased free throw and 3-point accuracy.
The message is clear: whether you're an elite athlete or someone who's just setting out on a fitness journey, sleep could be that game-changer you've overlooked.
The price we pay when we cut sleep short
The fast-paced world we inhabit tempts us to skimp on sleep. As we see sleeping hours as wasted hours, we might view these sacrifices as necessary or inconsequential. But the truth is undeniable: the repercussions of sleep deprivation are vast and deeply intertwined with everything we do:
Thinking, Learning, Remembering
Sleep loss makes it difficult for us to be alert, learn new skills, and remember things. And this isn't just about forgetting someone's name. For instance, sleep deprivation is a common cause of deadly automobile accidents. Drowsy driving is responsible for over 6,000 fatal crashes annually in the U.S. alone.
Not only does sleep deprivation decrease your physical capacity, including aerobic and anaerobic power, it also impairs recovery after exercise. The result? Less muscle is built, less progress is made, and you are left feeling like you're stuck in a rut.
Mental Health and Well-being
Chronic sleep deprivation can lower motivation, impair decision-making, and even decrease our sense of humor. We're not just physically tired; we're mentally weary, moody, and often grumpier.
As you build up sleep debt, your body will begin by responding in subtle ways: you may feel more fatigued or a heightened perception of pain. The longer you proceed in a sleep deprived state, the more serious the impact to your health. Inflammation increases, gut issues arise and immunity takes a beating, eventually leading to chronic disease.
Hormonal and Metabolic Disruption
Sleep deprivation alters hormonal function, often leading to increased hunger, appetite, and cravings. So when you have been noticing yourself overeating and being less aware of your hunger and fullness cues, lack of sleep could likely be the culprit.
Risk Taking Behavior
In our sleep-deprived state, we tend to be more impulsive and risk-taking. Since this is paired with slower reaction times and impaired cognitive function, it's a recipe for accidents and mishaps.
In short, compromising on sleep is compromising ourselves in almost every way.
Reframe your priorities
If you're truly committed to your fitness goals, remember that success doesn't only result from the work you do in the gym. I will say this time and time again: You only benefit from what you recover from.
Sleep is just as important as your workouts and your nutrition, if not more. It replenishes and rejuvenates you, and frankly, it's the one ingredient that makes everything else possible. It takes quality sleep in order to perform at your peak – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Some practical tips on improving your sleep
There are plenty of pills and devices on the market that all claim to help you get to sleep and stay asleep. But the truth is, nothing is more effective here than your choices and behavior. The key to getting better and longer sleep is working on your pre-sleep routine.
Your pre-sleep routine is in a nutshell, the series of steps you take to wind down and prepare your body for sleep. Different things are going to work for different people, and what you choose to do should fit easily into your schedule and lifestyle. With that said, here are some options you can try out:
- Dim the lights in the evening, draw the blinds, and make your bedroom as dark as possible
- Taking a cool or hot shower or bath (depending on which works best)
- Listen to calming music
- Turn off all electronics and screens (TV, computers, phones) at least 1 hour before your bedtime
- Do a “brain dump” and write down all your worries and concerns and things you need to do the next day on paper. This gets it out of your head and your thoughts.
- Cuddle with a loved one or pet
- Deep breathing, muscle relaxation, yoga, tai chi, or other body-calming exercises
- Light a few candles in the evening to set the mood for relaxation
- Drink a cup of hot herbal tea (unless it keeps them up at night running to the bathroom), adding milk and honey as desired
In our quest for success, we often sideline sleep, not realizing it's the very fuel that powers our ambitions. In reality, sleep deeply influences our lives, impacting our physical abilities, cognitive functions, and emotional balance. Skimping on rest doesn't just have immediate effects—it impacts every facet of our lives. As we chase our goals, it's crucial to view sleep not as an afterthought but as a vital component of our health. Success isn't just about rising and grinding; it's also about the rest we grant ourselves. Sleep isn't the enemy of ambition; it's one of its strongest supporters.