On the Importance of Sleep

>> Thursday, July 29, 2010

Anyone who knows Stephen knows that he has this ridiculous amount of knowledge about marine life. The other day he mentioned something about how sharks don't sleep (well, at least not how we do) because they must keep swimming. They constantly move, rushing water over their gills to receive oxygen (yeah, to breathe under water). This whole thing blew my mind.

I can't imagine being in non-stop motion. Not sleeping. Yikes!

With all we have written about running and fitness, there's been little on the topic of rest and relaxation. Especially sleep. Sleep is not only necessary, but also amazing -- almost magical. It gives us the opportunity to recharge mentally and physically. Our bodies and minds do a lot of important work in those hours of dark and quiet. We've all read what too little sleep can do to the body -- from increased stress and weight gain to shortened life span and hastened visible signs of aging (source). And runners and athletes need a good night's rest to perform their best in the short and long term.

When I was less athletic, I stayed up late almost every night. Usually till 1:00 AM or so. I would read. Look up stuff online. Hang out with friends. Or even do nothing at all. I just didn't sleep well, nor did I care. When I became more physically active in college, my sleep regulated, but my social life worked against my natural urges. I didn't get nearly enough rest between studying for exams and partying on weekends (OK . . . and week nights). When I graduated, I slept more, but still not enough. No, it wasn't until half marathon and marathon training that I truly understood and appreciated the power of the pillow.

Now, I crave sleep. I need at least 8 hours a night to feel "normal," whatever that means. If I don't get that much time, I feel lousy. And I'm lucky. I live a lifestyle right now that allows me to get a ton of ZZZs on a regular basis. Of course, those of you out there with children are probably laughing right now, and many of the tips I provide may not work for you. For the rest of you, however, despite what you may think, you, too, can find more horizontal time each night.

(Who's that in the photo? It's Steff from Steff Says!) You just need to have the motivation. The dedication. And a few helpful tips. How much sleep you "need" is entirely up to you. The recommended daily amount is anywhere between seven and up to ten hours (depending on a variety of factors, including age and activity level). To find what works best for you, experiment.

#1: Make the commitment to yourself. Sleep is important. We've already covered that. The first step in getting more rest is reminding yourself of this fact (sleep is important, sleep is important, sleep is important) whenever something comes in the way. For example, I often get in the habit of writing posts at night, well into the night. I now have a cut-off time of 9:00 PM so that I can start to unwind . . . disconnect. If I'm not in bed by 10:00 PM on a work night, I know I won't have enough time to get in my "required" 8 hours. However, I've made the commitment to myself that because sleep is important, I will push aside other duties and pursuits in favor of more shut-eye.

Sometimes I have to actually verbalize this commitment to myself if I'm particularly wrapped up in work or another activity. But I've been getting quality rest time for over two years now, and I'm ever-so thankful. If you're having trouble choosing sleep over other stuff, just think about how much better you'll feel with the extra snoozes. Picture yourself waking up the next morning -- do you feel refreshed . . . or not? More than likely, you'll wish you had skipped that late-night celebrity gossip fest. So, turn off the TV and head to bed!

#2: Look at your routine and create a ritual. It's difficult to get in the zone if you're pushing yourself to the max until you go to bed every night. What are you doing in the afternoons and evenings? Is it relaxing stuff . . . or stressful stuff? Are you drinking coffee or alcohol (both may impact your sleep)? Are you bottom-loading your day with social activities out of your house/apartment? Basically, are you setting yourself up for a successful night's sleep? The answer may surprise you.

Along these same lines, if you create a ritual every night (like taking a warm shower 15 minutes before bed . . . drinking some herbal tea . . . reading a chapter of a novel . . . etc.) you'll get your brain in sleep-mode. If your routine involves staring at a TV or computer screen (or iPad), you may want to reconsider. Staring at an illuminated screen -- much like sitting in lit-at-all-hours casinos -- creates this false sense of time. "Melatonin signals are sent through the brain as a response to darkness, telling the body to prepare to shut down for the night" (source). So, if this is part of your night, try to limit your exposure an hour to half an hour before bed.

#3: Rearrange your day. You may save work or other obligations for the night-time hours. You may think you literally don't have time to get in those extra hours you need to feel and perform your best. But think again.

Consider creating a schedule in Excel of your day. Divide the sheet into days of the week and hours of the day. Activities and responsibilities are blocks of time -- usually one or two hours, etc. Work and other items may be constants -- blocks that cannot be moved. But look at where you might be able to shuffle stuff around. Meal times. Exercise times. Hanging-out times. Errand times. Make sure to include in this schedule a nice block of sleep time. You CAN fit it in, it may just take some creative scheduling.

Sometimes the issue is not a matter of trying to squeeze in more time for sleep. No, sometimes getting any shut-eye at all is difficult . . . for a variety of reasons. I've had my fair share of weird no-sleeping spells. In our next post on this topic, we'll cover ways to get over these issues. If you have and of your own tips to add, just leave us a comment or email us at neverhomemaker [at] gmail [dot] com.

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