I could see it on his face. I was disappointing Max, the strength coach I trust with putting me through the ringer once a week at Hardpressed.
“Are you burning the midnight oil?” he asked.
I talked through my schedule, noting that I was sleeping enough to keep me alive during my waking hours, but my sleep schedule wasn’t ideal.
“How’d you know?” I asked.
“It’s in the numbers,” he said, which is a pretty nice way to say that I wasn’t moving the weights that I normally could. My lack of sleep was making me weaker and you can’t argue with the data.
Busy people have been seeking answers to the question, “What’s more important: sleep or exercise?”
TIME answered that question with the help of researchers and doctors who study the relationship between sleep and exercise. Cheri Mah, a sleep medicine researcher at Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco said, “When you look at the research, regular physical activity is important for high-quality sleep, and high-quality sleep is important for physical performance.”
The answer is both, but Mah goes on to say that if she was pressed to choose, she would select sleep.
“Sleep is the base on which a healthy mind and body stand,” she explains. “From your immune function to your mood, energy, appetite and dozens of other health variables, if that base is wobbly, your health will suffer.”
And so will your workouts. In a study in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, poorer sleep quality and decreased total sleep time were associated with lower performance in health-related physical fitness assessment among college students.
The brain fog, the lethargy and the extra hunger pangs that you experience when you’re tired are your body operating at a sub-optimal level. Your lack of sleep isn’t just depriving you of the rest your body needs to rebuild and hit the gym again – it’s changing the hormonal balance of your body.
In an article by Fitness Magazine, James Herdegen, MD, medical director of the Sleep Science Center at the University of Illinois in Chicago says “When you don’t get enough [sleep], your body appears to require more insulin to maintain normal glucose levels.”
What does that mean? Less sleep can elevate your risk of diabetes “to a degree roughly equivalent to gaining 20 to 30 pounds, according to a 2007 study at the University of Chicago.”
Sleeping seven hours each night is recommended by the piece in Fitness Magazine, and the risk of diabetes is elevated for those getting six hours of sleep or fewer each night.
So how can you improve your nightly sleep session? Treat rest as though it were as important as your biggest meeting of the year:
1. Set aside time for it. Make yourself a getting-ready-for-bed deadline. Tell yourself that you will be in your bathroom brushing your teeth – don’t forget to floss – and washing your face by 10:30 pm if your alarm is set to go off at 6 am. By allowing a half hour between your deadline and when you actually need to be asleep, you can ease yourself into bed.
2. Remove distractions. Take the screens out of the equation. According to a study quoted by Scientific American, two hours of iPad use at maximum brightness was enough to suppress people’s normal nighttime release of melatonin, a key hormone in the body’s clock, or circadian system. Another screen to push aside? Your cell phone. Move your charger away from your bed. Turn your phone to do-not-disturb mode. Don’t worry, parents, you can set your phone to still ring if you’re worried that you kids might call.
3. Set yourself up for success. Turn down the temperature of your home, put on your most comfortable PJs and stretch.
Get cozy and close those peepers, it will be the best investment of time that you make in your fitness routine this week.