You Exercise and Eat Right. Now, About Those Sleep Habits

As a personal trainer and a wellness consultant I work with a lot of folks struggling to balance the stresses of life. Those who carve out time to exercise and eat healthy often sacrifice sleep to get it all done.

Only 2.5% of the population has a sleep need less than six hours per night. The average person needs 7-8 hours of QUALITY sleep. Sleep deficiency diminishes our cognitive function, physical health and metabolism. It leads to inflammation, memory and concentration difficulties, increased hunger and cravings for sugar and poor physical performance. It has also been linked to depression, suicide and risk-taking behavior.

Making sleep a priority can be challenging, but it is equally as important to our well-being as nutrition and exercise. These 11 tips have helped my clients improve their sleep behaviors making them healthier humans and better professionals.

For further reading I recommend Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker PhD. Note, a version of this post was also published on Law.com on April 9.

  1. Keep your sleep space for sleeping. Don’t watch TV, read or use mobile devices in bed. This will lead to a pattern of falling asleep quicker when you get into bed. Create a comfortable, dark and quiet space. If you’ve been putting off a bed/bedroom makeover (like installing blackout shades or getting a firmer mattress), get it done ASAP. Consider it a court order.
  2. Try to become a back sleeper and avoid stomach sleeping to improve sleep quality and to reduce muscle and joint issues. Check out this post for more on the best and worst sleep positions.
  3. Go to bed early enough to get the sleep you need. This one is a no brainer, but can be the hardest for the hardheaded to practice. Power down your devices, turn off Game of Thrones and get into bed a solid 7.5 hours before you need to wake. Start by adding just 10 extra minutes and slowly continue adding 10 minutes over time to make the change manageable.
  4. Give yourself transition time. You can’t go from 0 to 60 mph first thing in the morning and you can’t do the reverse at night. Build in a few minutes of transition time to wind down or wake up to naturally release calming/stimulating hormones.
  5. 3 minute meditation. There are several quality free apps to help with meditation. I recommend Stop, Breathe & Think You can meditate any time of day, but it’s especially helpful when getting home from work and trying to transition from professional to personal time.
  6. Put down your devices. Your iPhone, iPad, laptop and any other devices that emit blue light stimulate the "fight or flight" mechanisms of your sympathetic nervous system. Not a great thing to do before bedtime. So put those devices down and definitely minimize their use in the 30-60 minutes before bedtime. If you MUST use them before bed, do so using blue light blocking glasses.
  7. Take 5 deep breaths. Devices jack up your sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”). Deep breathing from your diaphragm stimulates the reciprocal parasympathetic nervous system responsible for “rest and digest”. Taking a few deep breaths where you exhale twice as long as you inhale (try 4 seconds in and 8 seconds out) can have an amazing impact.  
  8. Let it go. Journal. Sleep is not the best time to to work or solve life’s problems. Keep a notebook (not your phone or device) by your bedside to write down thoughts that spring to mind while trying to sleep and save them for tomorrow.
  9. Don’t exercise. Well… don’t exercise right before bed. Try and time your workout 4-6 hours before bedtime. But you can do some gentle stretching or yoga for 5-15 minutes to release tension.
  10. Limit caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and super stimulating TV/reading. Sad but true, while many of these things appear to help, they are actually disrupting your body’s natural processes and lead to disordered sleep.
  11. Minimize jet lag. When traveling to another timezone, try to select a flight that arrives in the early evening and stay up until 10 pm local time. Try to get outside in the sunlight during your trip; staying inside intensifies jet lag symptoms.
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