Everyone has an ideal body image. We all have goals, dreams, and desires. Some of us want to be behemoth’s, able to lift anything in our way; others want to be as skinny as possible; kids want to look like Schwarzenegger in his prime when they grow up; teenagers might just want to have a flat stomach; adults probably just want to be able to keep up with our kids or grand kids. There are people who prefer to have a runners body, while others just want to wear a certain size pants. Our goals are just as diverse as we are, but most of use sabotage ourselves by prioritizing too many other things over sleep. In response, we fall into the sleep deprivation category.
The Ugly Truth
Most of us will never reach all of our goals. However, body image remains an important part of who we are and how we feel about ourselves. In fact, body image is so important that we are willing to go to otherwise insane lengths to look the way we want to look.
Think about it. We collectively spend tons of money and time on the perfect outfit, haircuts, shoes, and accessories. Sometimes we put too much effort into the gym or endure ridiculous diets in search of the ‘perfect body.’ What do we do about proper rest, though? The answer is always, ‘not enough.’ Are we sabotaging our progress through sleep deprivation? Why do we constantly prioritize other things over a good night sleep?
Sleep plays an enormous role in overall fitness, to the point that it can make or break an otherwise fantastic regimen’s progress. It affects mental clarity, muscle repair and regeneration, and a ton of other functions your body needs to do daily. Chances are, if you aren’t getting 7+ hours a night, you are hurting your progress, in and out of the gym.
What Happens When We Sleep?
While sleeping, our upper-level brain functioning turns off and our body finally has a few hours to heal and restore our bodies. This nightly reset is vastly important for your overall health, but it definitely helps you to get the full benefits from exercise, allowing you to reach the goals you have set.
Exercise-Related Health Benefits
Not getting enough rest is one of the main reasons athletes see plateaus in their progress. Their bodies cannot heal properly from the day’s activities, leading to injuries and the inability to grow to full potential.
On the other hand, proper rest comes with many health and fitness related benefits:
Muscles aren’t only made in the gym. What you do in the gym is important, but what happens outside the gym is just as important. When we sleep, our body has an extra period of down time to apply ‘micro band-aids’ while also sending in extra oxygen and nutrients to each damaged muscle fiber, strengthening and repairing our muscles.
A sleepy mind is a slow mind. As we exercise, peak performance comes from quick and accurate reactions, no matter what activity you are doing. Studies have shown that when we are sleep deprived, some of our brain cells have trouble functioning properly. Communication with other cells begins to suffer, leading to slower reactions.
Sharp movements and improved reaction times stem from a long night rest.
During deep sleep, our bodies regulate our hormones. Some of these hormones are important for muscle growth, bone health and physical maintenance. Others help to regulate appetite, decreasing our likelihood to eat more while sleepy.
Obviously, it is important to try to regulate hormonal imbalances in order to increase growth hormone production while reducing our appetite if we want to make any progress in the gym!
Inflammation is a bad thing, leading to discomfort or disease. When we sleep, especially at slightly cooler temperatures, inflammation is reduced, leading to a healthier immune system and a longer lifespan.
A heavy sleeper is a healthy sleeper. Rest is important to maximize our athletic performance, but it is also a key to our general health. Consistently good sleep (7+ uninterrupted hours) puts you at a lower risk for a wide range of disease, improves mental functioning and keeps your entire body balanced. Likewise, chronic sleep deprivation can cause a whole host of unwanted issues.
After exercise, our metabolism rises dramatically. This in turn leads to burning more calories and helping us burn excess body fat. However, sleep deprivation does the opposite, bringing dropping our metabolism levels and raising cortisol levels in our body, conserving the fat on our bodies.
Furthermore, lack of sleep creates serious food cravings, making it difficult to adopt healthy diet choices. A full night of rest can allow your body to reset its metabolism and keep you on-track!
Like exercise, sleep reduces the amount of stress hormones in our bodies. This main stress hormone, cortisol, is linked to lowered immune system health and weight gain.
Improvements in Self-Control
Sleep is important for our emotional health and our self-control. Getting enough exercise and eating healthily requires energy and discipline. To stay on track with our goals, we need the brain function and control to do it! Sleep allows our brain to function properly, helping us to focus on the task at hand.
Being happy is just as important as being healthy. Sleep boosts the mood and supplies the energy you need to get out there and do the things you love – like hit the gym! Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, can lead to irritability, moodiness, stress, anxiety, and depression. No one wants any of those things!
The Problem is…
While it may seem like one of the easiest things to do, studies show that more than one in three Americans don’t get enough sleep. Our crazy schedules and electronics keep us up for too long, too often. We often find ourselves laying in bed staring at a screen, hoping to fall asleep while watching the hours tick by.
‘If I fall asleep now, I can still get four hours tonight!’ we might say to ourselves as we miserably cling to hope. The alarm seem to go off the moment we finally fall asleep.
We still feel exhausted, our work day suffers, and we count the hours until we can once again meet up with our bed.
Lack of sleep does more than give you red eyes and a need for caffeine, however; insufficient rest can prevent progress in your workout, cause an inability to focus (both in and out of the gym), lead to weight gain and increase our risks of injury.
Inability to Sleep
Insomnia. Sleeplessness. It happens to everyone – tossing and turning, unable to get to a fully rested state. Our current society is full of distractions that can keep us from falling asleep or staying asleep.
Today, our sleep is most affected by screens. Yup, the phone. The laptop. The TV. All these awesome devices enhance our daily lives, but they work using blue light. The same light which stimulates the brain, tricking it into thinking it is daylight – even in the wee hours of the morning. If you have ever been to Vegas, you know what I am talking about. 3 am in the Paris casino, with their blue light backlit sky keeps you awake, and makes you lose track of time!
There are special blue-light glasses and “night mode” settings on most phones, but turning off the devices or leaving them in a different room before getting ready for bed is an even better option. That way you won’t be tempted to pick it up when you should be sleeping.
After a day of being “on”, your brain is in high gear. Your brain and body require time in order to ease into relaxation and prepare for sleep.
Give yourself some time to relax without overloading your brain with anything new. Read a book, have a tea, do something that relaxes you WITHOUT a screen or major excitement.
Stress can make it hard for us to relax, and harder still for us to sleep. Hormones induced by stress, like cortisol, running through your body or worries about something that happened or is happening soon running through your brain are enough to keep anyone awake.
If you’re feeling particularly wound-up, deep breathing is a great way to calm your nervous system and ease into sleep.
Effects of Sleep Deprivation
The effects of sleep deprivation begin after only 20 hours. If you think about it, that could just be a long day at the office!
However, the real effects hit hardest after 30 hours. As long as you get to bed, there is no lasting health risk or damage to your fitness goals. The side effects will start kicking in quickly if you don’t get the rest you need, however.
Because highly fit people expect a lot from their bodies, positive – and negative – changes are noticed more quickly. Those who don’t exercise regularly can probably get through a day without noticing low-level sleep deprivation, but athletes and active people notice it nearly immediately in their performance.
Moral of the story – if you’re expecting high-quality performance from your body, put in some high-quality rest.
The external signs of sleep deprivation are:
- Slower reaction times
- Clouded thinking
- Poor coordination
- Reduced emotional control
- Lowered self-control and motivation
- Inability to focus
- Food cravings
- Impaired learning and memory
Those all sound terrible. If you really stop and think about it, that list explains why sleep deprivation has been used throughout the ages as a torture mechanism. Clouded judgement, fatigue, irritability. They all make you pliable. Yet, we put ourselves through it daily.
Obviously, those things will also have a negative affect on us during our overall fitness regimen.
Why on Earth would we willingly choose to endure the potential to have to deal with those effects when we could just put down our devices or be home early enough to regularly get a good night’s sleep?
The average person needs about 7-9 hours of sleep a night. This seems like a lot. After all, it’s possible to get by on a lot less, but for high-performance individuals and those with their long-term health in mind, we need to get a good eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. While this does take up time that we could be working, socializing, or spending time with loved ones, it’s an important investment in our own health and happiness.
For those of us who exercise regularly, we should be getting even more sleep. Aim to hit closer to nine hours than six. Just as our bodies need extra food after a workout, they need extra rest after hitting the gym. You feel tired for a reason! Think of sleep as the easiest way to improve performance!
Stiffness after sleep.
After a long night of rest, it is normal to feel a bit stiff. Your ankles might be a little harder to move, or your arms could feel weak and immovable when you first wake up, for example. Lack of movement causes your muscles to tighten up slightly.
Furthermore, the cerebellum, the part of your brain that regulates balance and coordination, stays partially asleep for up to 30 minutes after you wake up! That is why sometimes you need to sit there for a minute after waking up before you move anywhere.
If you don’t feel quite at your best early in the morning, give yourself at an hour before engaging in any intense exercise or academic activities. That way you can be sure you are fully awake before taking part in activities that could get you injured.
Loosen up a bit to get the blood flowing, the limbs limber and the brain awake before you head onto more intense activities!
How do you know if you get enough shut eye?
First and foremost, you will know you are fully rested when you’re no longer tired. Sounds obvious, right? That is because it is. Our bodies regulate sleep naturally, and if you’re not getting enough rest they will let you know through performance, focus, or just an unshakable sense of sleepiness.
If your body wakes up naturally in the morning, if it’s getting up on its own without an alarm, you can be sure that your sleep-tank is full and you’re at your very best.
You might need more sleep if…
Stress and illness can both increase your need for sleep as your body tries to fight off whatever problems you may be having. Increased stress and physical illness tax the body to work harder and produce chemicals or antibodies in order to fight off the various ailments you are facing.
Additionally, some people may be affected by the change in seasons. Daylight hours grow or shrink depending on the time of year. This can lead to not feeling tired until much later in the day during the summer and a strong desire to hit the hay early in winter. This is especially true for those in far northern or southern climates where the daylight hour change is most apparent.
While these seasonal changes are normal and natural, remember – even in the summer with long daylight hours, you still need at least 7 hours of sleep!
Snooze more. Do it for yourself.
Take care of yourself by getting at least 7 hours of rest a night; more if you are exercising heavily or feeling under the weather. You will feel results, not only in your daily life, but in the gym as well.