Sleep, The Best Exercise?

You probably don’t sleep enough.  Chances are, you are aware of this.  You’re tired at work, drinking 6 cups of coffee to get through the day.  You struggle through your workouts, probably with the help of additional stimulants.

3 oclock rut coffee sleep desk office demotivational poster

You tell yourself you just don’t have time, or that you can’t sleep well anyway.

So you go through life working at half capacity.   You’re frequently sick.  You don’t recover from your workouts, so you never get full performance in the gym or maximize your gains.  Your fat loss is thrown off because your hormones are out of whack (hello, cortisol).  You’re a mess.

If you’re at all interested in fitness, or in your own health and longevity, you need to be thinking a lot harder about the amount and quality of sleep you get.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

As with so many things, it depends.  Some people need a solid 9 hours a night.  Others are fully rested at 6.  Most likely, you perform your best at between 7 and 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.  Be honest with yourself.  Lots of people like to say “I only need 5 hours a night!”  They usually have dark circles under their eyes.

Also, keep in mind that this means actual sleep time, not  “in the bed” time or “includes tossing and turning for 2 hours” time.  It’s time from when you actually fall asleep until you wake up in the morning.  Turning out the light doesn’t start the clock automatically.

How Can I Get More & Better Sleep?

Lots of factors go into the quality of your sleep.  I’ve roughly divided them into routine, environmental, and supplemental factors.

Routine Factors For Sleep

Developing an appropriate pre-bed routine is crucial to getting to sleep and staying there.  And pre-bed goes back a long way.

  1. Limit caffeine consumption - For me, this means no caffeine after about 4PM without consequences.  I’m a very caffeine tolerant individual; I don’t “feel it” per se, but if I have a cup of coffee at 5, I’ll regret it at 12.
  2. Limit alcohol consumption – True, alcohol can put you to sleep, but it interferes with the quality of sleep you get afterwards.  Even if you sleep through the night (which alcohol sometimes prevents), you wont be as well rested because you’ll have missed your deeper sleep cycles.  No more than one drink in the evening for optimal sleep.
  3. Calm down during the day – A frantic day leads to a racing mind at bed time.  Most of you probably know what frantic feels like.  It’s not a productive state.  No matter how much you have on your plate during the day, stay calm and in control.  Remember, multitasking actually makes you less productive, so tackle one thing at a time.  You’ll be more productive during waking hours and sleep much better later.
  4. Dump your brain – Even if you’ve been collected and productive during the day, you may have left over “to-dos” bouncing around your brain at the end of the day.  These will undoubtedly pop into the forefront of your mind as you try to get to sleep and cause you to leap awake in a panic.  Take a few minutes in the evening to write down those to-dos.  I like to do this kind of “brain dump” as the last thing before I leave work, then again a couple hours before bed if I need to.  I email these notes to myself at my work address, so they’re ready for me at work in the morning.  This one practice cut my bedtime stress down 90%.
  5. Take a shower – Taking a shower before bed is a great way to relax.  I like to do this after my brain dump, but before I read.
  6. Read - Take the last hour before bed to read.  Pick something completely unrelated to work.  It can be fiction or non-fiction, depending on your preference; pick the one that gets you less excited.  For me, that’s fiction.  Read it on paper on on a no-backlight apparatus (like a Kindle).
  7. No electronics / screens – Minimize your exposure to electronics pre-bed.  I prefer to be unplugged the last 2 hours before bed.  There are two reasons for this.  One, checking email, surfing, gaming, etc is highly stimulating.  It will wind you up.  Two, backlit screens are very bright, which tricks your mind into thinking it’s daytime.  That’s bad for your sleep hormone production (more on that later).
  8. Keep a consistent schedule – The more similar you can keep your sleep and wake times every day, the faster you’ll get to sleep and the better you’ll stay asleep.

Environmental Factors For Sleep

  • Make It Dark – Pretty simple.  Close the shades.  Buy darker shades if yours don’t work well.  Turn off lights.  Turn off electronics.  No flashing green LEDs.  As close to pitch black as you can get it.  Your body actually responds to darkness by releasing sleep hormones like melatonin, so make sure your body knows it’s night time.  Similarly, your evening activities (reading, etc) should be done in dim light.
  • Make It Quiet – Turn off music, TV, etc (you already did this right?).  If you live in a quiet place, that might be enough.  I live in Manhattan, so it isn’t.  There’s pretty much a chorus of sirens outside my window all night.  In this case, wear ear plugs.  I do.  It takes about 2 nights to get used to them.  Another option (additional or instead of earplugs) is to use a white noise generator of some kind (I like a small desk fan).
  • Make It The Right Temperature – Some people like to go to sleep cold (I do).  Others, warm.  Whatever you prefer, make sure your bedroom is the right temperature before you go to bed.

Supplemental Sleep Aids

Chances are, if you’ve implemented all of the above, you have no need of these.  If you haven’t tried the above, the supplements probably wont help much, so get through the routine and environmental factors first.

  • ZMA - Zinc and magnesium (2 out of the 3 ingredients in ZMA) are known to produce a soporific effect when taken pre-bed.  Most people report sleeping more soundly (and dreaming more) when they supplement with ZMA every night before bed.
  • 5-HTP – Often marketed as a mood-enhancer (which it is), 5-HTP helps with stress pre-bed and can result in getting to sleep better.
  • Z12 – This is technically a brand name supplement which contains 5-HTP among other things.  It’s made by Biotest, and is quite effective as a sleep aid.
  • Vitamin D – I don’t have any research off the top of my head which says Vitamin D is good for sleep, but it is a mood enhancer, and it fixes pretty much everything else.  How could that not make you sleep better?
  • Meditation - Not a supplement as we usually refer to them, but still something good to try for sleep.  Simply practicing meditation makes it easier to control your thoughts when you’re heading to sleep.

Did I put you to sleep?  Hope so…  If I missed any strategies that you find effective, leave them in the comments.