Exercise is Only Part of the Equation – Sleep is Essential for Optimal Health
Your workouts can leave you in puddles of sweat. Your nutrition can be dialed in. However, if you don’t get adequate sleep or practice effective sleep hygiene then the exercise you do may not produce the results you want. If you workout an hour a day that’s a total of 7 hours a week and since there are 168 hours in a week, that is less than 5% which means the other 161 hours outside of the gym are extremely important. Healthy lifestyle habits have a tremendous influence on the outcomes of your workouts and one of the healthiest habits you can influence is the quality and quantity of your sleep. The list below identifies 9 reasons why sleep is important for your fitness as well as being essential for achieving and maintaining optimal health.
We Should Get 7-9 Hours of Sleep PER NIGHT
“I’ll get enough sleep when I’m dead,” is often said by those individuals who fill their schedules with both work and social commitments, and maybe you’re one, but the reality is that not getting enough sleep could result in an early death making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Evidence suggests that insufficient sleep is a risk factor for a number of chronic health concerns including obesity, onset diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, depression and impaired driving (Channaoui, et al. 2014). The National Sleep Foundation, an organization of doctors and researchers who specialize in sleep, recommends that adults should achieve between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night (Sleep Foundation, 2020). Consider this, increasing sleep time by an hour per night is like getting an entire extra night’s worth of sleep over the course of a week.
Circadian Rhythms Control Your Body
The body’s circadian rhythms control functions such as temperature and sleep. As the sun goes down the circadian rhythms will naturally start preparing the body for sleep; exposure to light sources such as electronic screens, a stressful situation, hunger or substances such as caffeine, sugar or alcohol could interrupt the body’s ability to transition to sleep. Melatonin is a hormone that is supposed to help the body transition to sleep as exposure to light decreases which explains why trying to reduce screen time later in the evening is so essential for optimal sleep. (Sleep Foundation, 2020).
Less Than 6 Hours of Sleep a Night is BAD for Your Health
For both men and women, sleeping less than 6 hours per night could result in higher levels of belly fat. A lack of sleep can elevate activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which is responsible for stimulating the metabolism to produce the energy for physical activity. Insufficient sleep could elevate levels of the hormones cortisol and epinephrine which help release free fatty acids to be used for energy; when there is insufficient physical activity, the free fatty acids can be deposited in the adipose tissue of the abdominal region resulting in additional belly fat (Kenney, Wilmore and Costill, 2015)
Poor Sleep Could Result in Dementia
Not only can less sleep increase belly fat; a study published by the journal Nature Communications found that middle-aged adults who achieved less than 6 hours of sleep per night were at a 30% greater risk of developing dementia in their later years. Sleep is when your brain repairs and recharges yourself, improving your sleep now could pay dividends for years to come.
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Sleep Promotes Healthy Hormones
Another way that insufficient sleep could lead to weight gain is through the production of specific hormones. Grehlin is a hormone responsible for stimulating hunger. Leptin performs the opposite function and tells the body when it has had enough food intake. Poor sleep has been associated with an imbalance in these hormones which could result in over-eating (Chennaoui, et al. 2015). Plus, staying awake late into the evening allows more opportunities for mindless snacking on calorically-dense food.
The Stages of Sleep
While snoozing, the body will experience multiple cycles of sleep each of which can last between 70 to 120 minutes; there are three stages of non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep and a fourth stage of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep (Bushman, 2013).
Stage 1 Non-REM
The body has just dozed off and is preparing to enter stage 2; can last between one-to-five minutes.
Stage 2 Non-REM
The body is essentially ‘powering-down’ by reducing activity in the brain and body; this stage can last between ten and sixty minutes.
Stage 3 Non-REM
Brain activity slows down and relax; this stage can last between twenty and forty minutes.
Stage 4 REM
Activity in the brain actually increases while most of the body experiences temporary paralysis so that your muscles don’t react to any visual stimulation you may experience while dreaming; REM can last between ten and sixty minutes.
Muscles Grow While You Sleep
Getting the optimal quality and quantity of sleep is one of the most efficient means of allowing your body to recover from one day’s workout in order to be properly prepared for the next exercise session. One function of sleep is to allow time for muscles to repair themselves. Growth hormone is an anabolic hormone produced during stage 3 of NREM sleep and helps to repair tissues damaged during exercise; the longer a period of sleep, the more time for muscle tissues to regenerate and grow (Channaoui, et al. 2014).
Sleep Makes Your Immune System Stronger
Promote optimal function of the immune system. Outside of traumatic injury, illness is the second leading cause of missed playing time for athletes, and no, you do not have to play sports to receive this benefit. No matter what your job is, getting great sleep supports a strong immune system which, in turn, reduces the risk of becoming sick allowing you to optimize your performance and be more productive.
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Consider Nighttime Activities When Planning Your Workouts
When planning your workouts, think about what you’ll be doing in the evening. You do NOT want to plan a hard workout on a night when your ability to sleep will be compromised. Staying at home to binge watch a show? You can do a killer workout because you’ll probably go to sleep early. Heading out to celebrate something and know you’ll have a couple of adult beverages and will probably be getting to sleep later than usual? Don’t make that day your hardest workout. If sleep will be compromised, so will your ability to get the amount of sleep needed for optimal recovery. Taking your evening plans into account as you plan your workouts can help to ensure that you achieve optimal sleep which is critical for crushing those hard workouts that change your body.
Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
Despite the amount of research on the subject, scientists and medical professionals who study sleep are not 100% sure why we need sleep, but based on the evidence it is well established that achieving optimal sleep is essential for long-term health. The National Sleep Foundation provides the following suggestions for how to improve sleep habits (Sleep Foundation, 2020):
- Keep a regular sleep schedule, try to go to bed at the same time every night.
- Sleep in a dark room, remove the television and leave electronic screens in another room. The bedroom should be for sleeping, not watching television.
- Don’t eat right before bed, digestion could interrupt the process of falling asleep
- Reduce overall levels of stress, easier said than done but regular exercise plays an important role in reducing overall stress levels and that is where being consistent with your workouts is key.
Right now you are most likely not physically active while trying to read this blog which means that you are in homeostasis, the normal state of rest for the human body. Exercise is a physical stress imposed upon the body that disrupts homeostasis and involves a number of different systems including the metabolic, nervous, muscular and endocrine systems to support the body’s ability to perform physical work for a specific activity. If exercise is when stress is imposed upon the body, then consider sleep as the time when the body recovers from and adapts to the stresses from the workout. This has to be a harmonious relationship; too much exercise and too little sleep could result in overtraining, which could result in getting sick or not hitting your goals. Consistent exercise plus adequate sleep should produce the results you’re working for, but at the very least, it could help improve your overall health, isn’t that worth going to bed a little earlier?
“How Sleep Works: Understanding the Science of Sleep.” Sleep Foundation, 29 Nov. 2020,
Bushman, B. (2013) Exercise and Sleep. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. 17(5). 5-8.
Chennaoui, M., Arnal, P., Sauvet, F. and Leger, D. (2014) Sleep and Exercise: A Reciprocal Issue? Sleep Medicine Reviews. 20. 59-72.
Kenney, W., Wilmore, J. And Costill, D. (2015) Physiology of Sport and Exercise, 6th edition. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL.
Very informative article. Thank you for sharing this.