Today I decided that getting an extra 30-45 minutes of sleep would outweigh my desire to attend a 5:45 a.m. yoga class that I typically enjoy. It is a lovely opportunity to meditate, get fully in tune with my body and my mind, and sweat out my worries. I approach the day with more a more even-tempered and loving perspective and it seems like I am kinder in the world, and therefore it is kinder to me.
But in my last year and a half of focusing more intensity on my my overall WellBeing, a large component of that has been working on getting adequate sleep every day. I used to struggle mightily with insomnia, and I tended to neglect sleep and rest in favor of early morning runs or other physical activity. When I started studying the clinical research on these issues and encountered books like Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes by Tom Rath, I realized that sleep was non-negotiable for me. Another recent book by Arianna Huffington called The Sleep Revolution compiles both the history and the current research on the value and benefits of sleep.
Clearly I am not the only one evangelizing on this topic. But I want to share my personal experience, both as someone who was a “sleep skeptic” and someone who still occasionally struggles with insomnia. One of the first benefits I noticed when I began tracking and measuring my sleep a little more closely was that I could see a correlation between the quality of my days, and my quantity/quality of sleep. As a clinical researcher, data always help me commit to habit changes that are beneficial. If I do not see the evidence that it helps, I just question its validity.
So I conducted an n=1 experiment. For those unfamiliar with clinical research “n” is the number of subjects you include in a study. Many people would be skeptical of a trial in which n=1. But I say: if that “1” is you, it is highly significant. Not to say that you can “design” a trial that is truly rigorous, because it cannot be a Randomized Controlled Trial as exists in the scientific literature. So there are confounding factors. For example, as I got more sleep, I began craving less sugar and carbs. Since sugar tends to disrupt our sleep (especially if consumed right before bed) it led to a virtuous cycle of both sleeping better and consuming less sugar.
I have struggled with attention deficit throughout my life, and it is managed somewhat with medicine and somewhat with regular exercise, which is why I posed the “either or” in the title of this post. I knew that getting vigorous exercise helps my brain with the focus issues, and there is plenty of clinical research to support this notion. But what I did not realize, was that the trade-off of sleep in favor of exercise, may have been causing inflammation in my body and brain. Try Googling those search terms and you will find a host of studies on how brain inflammation is connected to virtually all types of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety as well as more serious conditions like autism, dementia and schizophrenia.
My Dad always used to tell me to get my sleep, that I would risk heart attacks and other serious consequences by not sleeping. This was because in the early days of my adolescent (and throughout my adolescence and adult life) I was always an “early bird” and enjoyed mornings. But I would often stay up late reading a book or studying or doing other things that I enjoyed. Dad knew, without consulting the research, that I could be doing some damage by becoming sleep deprived. I also think this led to unhealthy eating patterns (high in carbohydrates, and lacking healthy fat) which I noticed especially during college and continuing into adulthood as well.
Bodies which do not have enough rest crave energy and restoration. While they cannot get this through food, they often turn to this “cheap substitute.” But when we feed ourselves the right nourishment in the form of adequate rest, our systems tend to reset. So while I love my yoga, and generally practice at least 3-4 times a week to feel my best, I have decided never to trade sleep for yoga. If my body is tired, and needs more rest, I will grant it the rest it needs before going to yoga. Developing this level of trust with my own body, and giving it what it truly needs to be healthy has allowed my body and brain to be more productive and more fulfilled.
Ironically, even though I spend more time sleeping these days (averaging 7-8 hours/night) I actually find time for yoga more easily. My priorities have aligned to make sure that I get regular yoga practice into my schedule, and I honor that commitment to myself. Also: yoga after work seems to lead to better sleep quality that night. Another virtuous circle.
So, dear reader, I suggest that the next time you are tempted to skip the workout because you are tired, maybe skip the workout and get another 60-90 minutes of sleep. If you really want to get that workout in, go to bed an hour earlier the night before. Set an alarm in the evening which reminds you when it is time to wind down for the night. Do this regularly and you will not regret it.
Namaste. Sleep well.