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Can Better Sleep Help You Stay Fitter?

You’ve done all the fad diets and tried every weight loss program you could find-- nothing seems to work. You’ve counted calories, altered eating habits, and pinned your hopes on fitness programs that did wonders for your friends or family, but did absolutely nothing for you.

 Don’t give up just yet. The problem probably isn’t you or your genes. The problem may just be in the way you sleep.

The Sleep Connection

Several studies have revealed that a large part of what affects a person’s ability to lose weight and stay fit is sleep. According to Dr. Helene A. Emsellem, medical director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Maryland, there’s a very close relationship between insufficient sleep and a person’s inability to lose or stabilise weight. Apart from increasing your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, a chronic lack of sleep has been proven to increase your chances of obesity as well. This is due to several factors, one of which is that insufficient sleep interferes with your body’s hormones that regulate how efficiently it burns fat.

 Another factor contributing to this is that lack of sleep leads to a lot of snacking. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinoloy and Metabolism found that sleeping less than six hours a night triggers the area of your brain that increases your need for food while also depressing hormones that make your stomach feel full after you eat. And it can become a viscious cycle: you indulge in a late-night snack and not get enough rest, resulting in an even greater urge to snack again the next night, and so on and so forth.

Sleeping Your Way to Fitness

Not surprisingly, studies have shown that while insufficient sleep can lead to obesity, sufficient sleep can lead to greater fitness. According to a study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition people who had enough sleep burned five percent more calories at rest and 20 percent more calories after a meal than those who were sleep-deprived. Another study from the University of Chicago showed that sufficient sleep actually boosts fat loss. In this study two sets of participants were given the same weight loss program and while both sets lost weight, the first set lost twice as much weight from fat than the other. The difference? The first set of participants had eight and a half hours of sleep while the other only had five and a half hours.

 Aside from these scientific findings, it’s an observable fact that well-rested people are generally more focussed than sleep-deprived people so they are able to make wiser choices when it comes to food. They are also more coordinated, are able to recover from injuries better and have more energy for exercise. With all this evidence of the importance of sleep in keeping fit, you’d be foolish not to get enough Z’s!

Tips for Better Sleep

But what if you just find it difficult to get enough sleep every night? Here are a few tips that might help:

1.   Prioritise sleep. This may seem simple, but a lot of people find this hard to do. What with all the emails to answer, all the chores to do, all the books to read, and all the series to bingewatch, sleep just seems to lose its importance. But you can’t argue scientific fact, and if you want to get fitter and healthier you simply must put sleep first. If it’s all the tasks you need to finish that’s keeping you up at night, here’s an exercise that you could do: write down all those tasks on a piece of paper, then ball it up and throw it in the bin. This act symbolises that you don’t have to worry about those things and you can set them aside until morning. If it’s a book that’s keeping you awake, move it away from your bedside table and into another room so it doesn’t tempt you. And keep the remote out of reach if the television is telling you to stay awake.

2.   Build a sleep routine. Get to sleep within 30 minutes of the same time each night and wake up at roughly the same time each morning, even on weekends. Also, try to get the right amount of sleep every night. But what is the right amount of sleep? This can actually differ from person to person, and the best way to figure out your optimal sleep hours is to sleep without any alarms or distractions. Try to do this on your next vacation, and when you reach a point where you’re sleeping and waking up at roughly the same time feeling rested, then you’ve achieved your optimal sleep length.

3.  Set yourself up for sleep. Be in the right mindset for rest by getting a relaxing hot bath right before you go to bed, playing some soothing songs, setting your thermostat to a comfortable temperature and blocking out all sources of light. Another tip: wear socks to bed. According to a Swedish study your feet’s blood vessels naturally dilate as your body begins to relax, and keeping your feet warm can help this process.

4.   Eliminate distractions. Pets, kids, computers and other gadgets-- clear them all out of your bedroom once it’s time for bed. Can’t sleep because of body aches and pains? The solution is as simple as taking over-the-counter pain relievers. If that doesn’t help, simply consult your doctor. Is your partner snoring too loud? Turn on some white noise to drown out the snoring, and get your partner to see a doctor as well to make sure it’s not something serious like sleep apnea.

 One last tip we’d like to give: don’t skip out on sleep in order to exercise, or vice versa! You need both in order to stay healthy and fit. There are plenty of other things in your life that you can certainly do without (you know you can do away with that extra hour of just surfing the net!) but sleeping and exercise are definitely not those things.

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