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The Importance of Getting Those zzzz's

Getting adequate sleep is fundamental for maintaining good mental and physical health. Period.

We have all probably experienced how different you feel after getting 3-4 hours sleep, compared to a nice 8-10 hour sleep. Lack of sleep can negatively affect your mood, energy and hormone levels, concentration and athletic performance. It can also have a negative impact and hinder your progress in the gym, or prevent you getting closer towards that weight loss goal. And while you might have the odd night where you experience lack of sleep that can be recovered the following evening, continually having inadequate or disrupted sleep can potentially cause poor health issues. And like a horrible cycle. poor health can then make it difficult to sleep and so the spiral to insomnia can occur.

"Getting too little sleep creates a “sleep debt,” which is much like being overdrawn at a bank. Eventually, your body will demand that the debt be repaid."

With researchers recommending 7-8 hours sleep per night, how do you compare? We are all different and the amount of sleep you need may differ slightly to your friends and family, or so it may seem. Because if you are relying on caffeine to get you through the day, experiencing sugar cravings, and lack of concentration, focus and motivation, it may be time to re-evaluate how much sleep you are getting.

And how well we sleep can have many influencing factors: stress, work schedule, diet and environment to name a few. Yes, some factors are more manageable than others. But in the modern age where many of us are checking our social media right before we nod off, getting up at the crack of dawn to get to the gym before work or binge watching boxsets until the small hours of the morning; how are your choices affecting your sleep and consequently affecting your daily life

What is sleep?

Sleep is a period of reduced activity where the body experiences changes in heart rate, breathing, body temperature, brain wave activity and other physiological functions. It's prime time for our bodies to recover from our daily activities and absorb information we have received throughout the day. Even though adequate quantity is important, the quality of sleep is equally, if not more important. The stages of sleep work as a cycle, getting progressively deeper after you first fall asleep and returning to the first lighter stage (REM sleep). This cycle is expected to last 1 1/2 hours and we should experience the full cycle (ideally several times) in order to feel rested.

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How can sleep influence your progress towards your fitness goal?

Sleep, Food and Hunger

Insufficient sleep can play havoc with your hormones. Hunger is a sensation dependent on hormone levels, in particular 'Leptin' which decreases your appetite, and 'Ghrelin' which increases your appetite. When you are sleep deprived your body releases more Ghrelin, therefore, bumping up those hungry/hangry feelings giving you stronger food cravings. This may lead to you reaching out for those extra snacks and high calorie foods to give that quick burst of energy and settle the cravings. If you have a weight loss goal, you ultimately want to be consuming less calories than you are using. Therefore, if in your tired state you are grabbing that extra 200-300 calorie snack to give you that little hit of energy, it can make the difference to maintaining that daily calorie deficit to help reduce your body fat composition.

Sleep and Mood

Lack of sleep and mood are closely connected. Poor or inadequate sleep can cause irritability, leave you feeling short-tempered and vulnerable to stress, as well as experiencing feelings of anger, sadness and anxiety. These will all put a damper on your mood and make getting through the day that little bit harder. You may find you want to spend less time around people, have reduced self confidence and may be less likely to voluntarily go out and do things that will boost your mood. For example, being in a low mood might leave you very unmotivated to exercise. Exercise itself is known to release endorphins and actually improve your mood. So, you could be missing out on a workout that will not only help you towards your goal, but also help improve your mental health and mood.

Stress, whether it is mental or physical, can also cause us to experience lack of sleep. Does being up all night where it feels like the brain is unable to switch off sound familiar? Unfortunately, it is a frustrating cycle where stress makes it harder for our nervous system to relax. Then if we have poor sleep, it adds extra stress on the body. However, if you are able to monitor and control one of the 'stresses', hopefully the other should become more manageable.

Sleep and Physical Performance

The more you sleep and the better quality it is, the more rested you will feel. If you are running on half empty and already feeling exhausted before you even begin your workout, then each rep/mile/minute is going to feel a hell of a lot harder. Your muscles will not be able to work to their maximum potential, and when fatigued could compromise your movement technique during exercise leading to potential injury. With either case, this can also be even more demotivating if you know you are not getting the most out of your workout.

Sleep and Mental Performance

Inadequate sleep can also limit your mental performance as well as your physical performance. Lack of sleep can reduce concentration levels, focus and motivation as well as leaving the brain to function at a slower than optimal level. In terms of your workout, it may have you leaving the gym early because the motivation to keep going is no longer there, or something as simple as cutting down your repetitions in your sets because you forgot how many you've already done! By remaining focussed during exercise, and tuning into the connection between the mind and body, it can increase the efficiency of neural pathways and muscular movement. Therefore, if this is compromised due to lack of sleep, your workout will not be as effective as it could be!

Sleep and Recovery

Sleep is the prime time for your body to recover from daily physical and mental exertion. This is when your body heals from the micro-tears caused by exercise in the muscles, and begins to rebuild them to help make them stronger. Sleep recharges your nervous system and your energy stores so that when you wake up these are all topped up for you to last throughout the majority of the day. If you don't let your Central Nervous System (CNS) recover enough through adequate sleep, elements of your fitness will suffer. The CNS is responsible for muscular contractions, reaction time and pain response. Over-working this means you could unnecessarily overload the body with extra stress leading to you feeling slower, weaker and potentially injuring yourself.

Tips for Improving Your Sleep

1. Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon/evening: While some people manage to have a coffee at 10pm after their meal at a restaurant (how though??), caffeine generally keeps you awake and alert for longer. So if you know you are more sensitive to caffeine, try to lay off it later in the day.

2. Avoid eating 1-2 hours before going to bed: This can be tricky depending on your working hours, but as with caffeine, food can spike your glucose levels and your body will want to focus on digesting food before winding down to sleep. If you do want a snack before bed, try to avoid fatty, spicy or fried foods and opt for something like a few wholewheat crackers, nuts or cereal with milk.

3. Sort out your sleeping environment: Lots to think about here. If you can make sure your bedroom is just for sleeping. Fill it with calming smells of candles or incense, use a blackout blind or curtains and minimise any noise or disruptions you can (good luck if your partner snores!). If you have work to do at home, do it in another room if possible, so your brain can make the connection between bed and sleep, rather than other tasks. Try putting your phone further away from your bed so you're less tempted to be on it before bed. The light from your phone will stimulate your nervous system preventing it from winding down and relax, and you'll be less likely to mindlessly scroll through social media before nodding off. Also, you want your bed to be as comfortable as possible! So, invest in some good pillows, duvet, sheets and mattress to make getting into bed at the end of the day even better!

4. Exercise daily: Whether it is vigorous or light exercise, try to move and be active as much as possible during the day. Whether you prefer exercising in the morning, afternoon or evening find what suits you and your schedule/energy levels. If like me, you prefer to exercise in the morning, be careful not to prioritise that 6am class/gym session for sleep too often. While exercise may help wake you up, it should not be at the expense of losing necessary sleep.

Hopefully some of these tips may help you if you struggle with your sleep, whether it is quality or quantity. However, if it is a persistent problem and you notice it affecting your daily life, please speak to your GP or a specialised practitioner to help you with your personal sleep problem.

Eilidh Brown

Simply Moving Personal Training


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