When it comes to fitness goals – whether the goal is fat loss, muscle gain, strength gain, or performance – most recommendations revolve around training and nutrition.  But sleep is arguably just as important, here’s why…

I’m pretty lucky, for the most part, I’ve always been a good sleeper.

I would say that I’ve averaged 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night consistently for most of my life with a couple of exceptions.

One of those exception is now — and it’s what triggered me to write this post.  I haven’t been sleeping great at all over the last few months because I’ve been pregnant and dealing with the hormonal swings, general discomfort and the urge to pee every 30-minutes.

It’s to be expected though and I’ve been able to compensate for it pretty well by prioritizing my nutrition, adjusting my training, and getting rest and recovery throughout the day.

But that wasn’t the case the last time I experienced major sleep disruptions — when I was grad school.  Back then, my days looked a little something like this:

  • 5:30 am: wake up
  • 5:30 to 6:00 am:  eat breakfast while catching up on emails or school reading
  • 6:00 to 7:00 am: workout
  • 7:00 to 10:00 am: train clients
  • 10:00 am to 4:00 pm: at school attending classes, teaching labs, doing research or working on my thesis.
  • 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm:  training more clients
  • 8:00 pm to the wee hours of the morning: party like a rock star
  • sometime between 12:00 and 2:00 am:  go to sleep

Rinse and repeat.

I knew better, but I kept up that pretty insane pace for the 2 years that I was in grad school and for couple of years after (just sub more clients and teaching for going to class, researching, and writing my thesis).

For almost 4 years, I didn’t sleep enough but I found a way to function.  Don’t ask me how. Looking back on it now, I honestly don’t know how I survived.

Eventually though, it caught up with me.  I started gaining weight, my performance in the gym dropped significantly, I wasn’t recovering well, and I was hungry and craving sweets all the time.

Even though I continued to train consistently and I ate well for the most part, the lack of sleep prevented me from getting any significant results from my training.

So, needless to say, sleep is pretty important.  You could easily argue that it’s one the most important (if not THE most important) factors in achieving the body or the performance that you want.

Let’s take a more in depth look…

Why Is Sleep So Important?

Sleep restores everything in our bodies.  Our immune, nervous, hormonal, metabolic, skeletal, and muscular systems all rely on adequate sleep for proper function.

Most people need at least 7 hours of sleep per night, and likely more.

Sleep helps keep us lean and healthy

Studies suggest that people who sleep less than 6-hours per night gain almost twice as much weight over a 6-year period as people who sleep 7- to 8-hours per night.

But more sleep isn’t necessarily better.  In the same study, those who slept more than 9-hours per night had similar outcomes as those who slept less than 6-hours.

Sleeping less than 7-hours a night can also reduce or negate the benefits of dieting.

In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, dieters were put on different sleep schedules.  When the dieters received adequate rest, they lost body fat.

However, when they got less than 7-hours of sleep, the amount of fat lost was reduced by half — even though they were on the same the diet.

Overall, the subjects that got adequate sleep lost 55% more fat compared to subjects that were sleep deprived.

Sleep helps regulate our hormones and metabolism

It’s not 100% clear whether poor sleep causes excess body fat or whether it’s the result of excess body fat.  But…some studies have found that sleep deprivation can disrupt the hormones that regulate appetite.

One study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that sleeping less than 6-hours triggers a drop in leptin (a hormone that a makes you feel satiated) and an increase in ghrelin (a hormone that triggers hunger).

Lack of sleep has also been shown to increase the stress hormone cortisol.  Cortisol should be high in the morning (to help you wake up) and should drop over the course of the day.  Chronically high cortisol levels or high nighttime cortisol levels have been associated with weight gain.

Not only that, cortisol also activates the parts of your brain that make you want more food.  So the combination of high ghrelin and cortisol essentially shut down the parts of your brain that leave you feeling satiated after a meal while stimulating the parts of your brain that make you feel hungry.

The result:  you feel hungry all the time, even if you’ve just eaten.  You eat more.  You gain body fat.

Adequate sleep makes it easier to maintain better eating habits

Going to bed early, eliminates late-night snacking.

Let’s be honest, when late-night cravings hit, most people don’t go searching for things like steamed broccoli or baby carrots.  They go for high-calorie, high-sugar, high-fat, processed foods.

Is Lack Of Sleep Stalling Your Results?

Sleep deprivation has been shown to negatively affect diet-related decision making because it impairs frontal lobe activity — which controls complex decision making — while simultaneously stimulating the amygdala, the reward seeking part of the brain.

So when we’re sleep deprived, we have trouble fighting the urge to indulge and we’re more likely to choose less healthy options and higher portions.

Adequate sleep is essential for muscle gain and workout recovery

Regardless of what your fitness goal is, building muscle is probably key to reaching it.  Building muscle helps us increase strength, improve athletic performance, burn more body fat, and look better aesthetically.

Inadequate sleep has been shown to decrease protein synthesis.  In other words, it decreases your body’s ability to build muscle.  Sleep deprivation has also been shown to cause increased muscle breakdown and higher incidence of injury.

Not only that, lack of sleep makes it harder for your body to recover from workouts because it slows down the production of growth hormone.  So overtime, your workouts get progressively more difficult to get through.

Sleep improves mental health

Sleep deprivation and abnormal circadian rhythms have been associated with depression, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder and ADHD

Make Sleep A Priority

Bottom line:  If you want to improve your health or if you want to get results out of your training and nutrition plan, you need good sleep, consistently.

Like good nutrition and exercise habits, quality sleep doesn’t just magically happen.  You have to make it happen.

A consistent sleep routine can help make quality sleep more likely.

A sleep routine is just a set of behaviours that you use to trigger your body to relax and prepare for sleep.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, all you have to do is decide in advance on a bedtime that will allow you to get adequate sleep and then 30- to 60-minutes before bed, start a relaxing transition using one or more sleep promoting behaviours.

Here are a a few things that you can try to help improve your sleep quality.  Experiment with one or more…

  • Turn off all electronics (i.e. TV, computer, tablet, cell phone, etc).  Even though late night Facebook creeping or TV watching might seem relaxing, the light from electronic screens actually stimulate brain activity and mess with our circadian rhythms.
  • Listen to some relaxing music or do some light reading.
  • Do a pre-bed ‘brain dump’.  If you find yourself staying up, thinking about everything you need to get done or stressing about something.  Get it all down on paper before you lay down to sleep.  Doing this can help clear your mind and make it easier to relax.
  • Take an Epsom salt bath.  The magnesium in Epsom salts help calm the body and promote sleep.
  • Dim the lights 30-60 minutes before bed and make sure  that your bedroom is dark when you go to sleep.  Darkness cues our bodies to sleep.  Too much nighttime light exposure can interfere with sleep.
  • Keep your bedroom cool.  Cooler temperatures promote sleep and make a more comfortable sleep environment.
  • Try a few minutes deep breathing or meditation.  Both of these activities can be used to slow breathing and heart rate, promote relaxation, and trigger sleep.

You don't have to do all of these things.  Just choose 1 or 2 that you think might help you.

Focus On Your Behaviours

Using a sleep routine increases your likelihood of getting a restful sleep, but it doesn’t guarantee it.  Don’t lie awake worrying about ‘doing it right’ or developing the ‘perfect’ sleep routine.  Just get to bed on time, try a couple of the tips listed above, and know that you did your best.

If you need some ideas, here’s what I do personally:

  • Dim the lights and turn off all electronics 30-minutes before my planned bedtime.
  • Write down 3 small wins that I had that day and 3 things that I’m grateful for in my planner.  I then take a look at the following day’s schedule and write down my 3 biggest priorities — the things that absolutely have to get done the following day.  Doing this helps me end my day on a positive note and stops me from lying awake thinking about all of the shit I have to get done.
  • Diffuse sleep promoting essential oils while doing a bit of light reading.  The aroma helps trigger my body to prepare for sleep, so after about 5-10 pages, I’m usually ready to pass out.

A simple sleep routine might not seem like much, but it can make a huge difference when it comes to health, fitness, and training results.

Are you training hard, eating well, and not quite getting the results that you're looking for?  Do you want to get better results, faster?

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