Dr Susan Baxter
Is Sleep Undermining Your Gains?
Updated: Feb 28
We have all been there. The procrastination that happens on a “school night” (or work night), where you feel just a little bit naughty by staying up late to watch Netflix, or just can’t be bothered to go to bed.
If you are also noticing that your gym results are stagnating, you might want to consider whether the two are related (sleep and results). You might also want to read about hitting a plateau. Although you might have cracked the habit of “regular exercise”, on top of a demanding work schedule, working hard at your career, and even staying on top of out-of-hours commitments (family/ dates), it simply isn’t possible to burn the midnight oil on top of all of that without something being a sacrifice; your results. For more tips on how to fit exercise into a busy schedule, click this link.
Recent research studies on sleep and associated tiredness might shed some light on these issues. It’s not new or revolutionary that achieving adequate sleep on a nightly basis is important.
But how much is adequate? It is generally accepted to be somewhere around 6-8 hours per night, however, simply averaging 6-8 hours per night is not the entire picture, as a recent study suggests.
A variation in sleep during the week compared to sleep at the weekend (social jet lag) has negative consequences on health. This is true regardless of whether you use the weekend to catch up on a shortage of sleep during the week, or if you use the week to catch up following the weekend. The longitudinal study looked at 815 non-shift workers, and this “social jetlag” was associated with metabolic disturbances and obesity. Social jetlag was also greater in obese individuals who were metabolically unhealthy (e.g. those that didn’t exercise) than those who were obese but metabolically healthy.
And there worse news when it comes to feeling tired both as a result of less sleep or feeling drained or “cognitive fatigue” after a long day. However, this particular feeling can make you more likely to make poorer food decisions, and less likely to exercise. Another study from the USA reported a link between lower self-control for decisions when mentally fatigued. It is therefore not just a lack of consistent sleep that can have an impact on your waistline or your fitness level: it is also the feeling resulting from a draining and cognitively demanding day.
One more issue: a “winding-down” activity might also be compounding the issue. When you get home, do you look at your smart phone/tablet or iPad? Sleep historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech3 found that computers and even light bulbs confuse your circadian rhythm (when your brain thinks it is time to sleep or be awake) into believing that it is mid-day and not time for lights-out. The knock on effect is your sleep quality and the result is a reduced ability to think creatively, and also to increases stress hormone and appetite hormones.
In fact, you are more likely to feel hungry and to consume, on average, an extra 500 calories from being tired, despite not using more energy during the day. Worse still, you tend to crave high-calorie density / low nutritional density (e.g. doughnuts over fruit).
Ok, what can you do to change any of that: you can’t quit your job, avoid feeling drained or stop communicating on your phone/tablet to get better sleep!
We have put together our best practical tips to help you get the most out of your training and keep winning at life:
Schedule it! Making a habit of gym time and sleep time will make it much easier to stick to.
Increase your NEAT (Non-exercise activity time): Try walking up the stairs when you can or standing for phone calls.
Reduce screen time: switch off an hour or so before bedtime, consider purchasing a traditional red digital alarm clock, and look at app settings that remove the blue from your screens.
Prepare with healthy snacks: Start with a high protein breakfast or have a bowl of fruit on your desk, as it is scientifically proven that you will be more likely to make better food decisions during the day. If you're curious about high protein diets, check this post.
Prepare your gym clothes the day before: Head straight to the gym after work. Or alternatively, start the day by exercising: people who do exercise earlier in the day have been shown to be more likely to make better decisions during the day.
Don’t shop on an empty stomach or at the end of a day: If you are faced with picking up food before making dinner, you are setting yourself up for failure after a long day!
Track your sleep: don’t let sleep debt become a habit. Consistent patterns and times of sleep have numerous health benefits, so make a bedtime and stick to it.
Parsons, Michael J., et al. “Social jetlag, obesity and metabolic disorder: investigation in a cohort study.” International Journal of Obesity 39.5 (2015): 842-848.
Hagger, Martin S., and Nikos LD Chatzisarantis. “The strength model of self-control: recent advances and implications for public health.” Social Neuroscience and Public Health. Springer New York, 2013. 123-139.
Hegarty, Stephanie. “The myth of the eight-hour sleep.” BBC news magazine. London (UK): BBC World Service (2012).