A couple of weeks ago, I went out on a Thursday with a few friends from college. We hadn’t seen each other in years, and what was supposed to be a casual get-together turned into all-night catchup, and I didn’t get to bed until dawn.
After three hours of sleep (having snoozed my alarm twice), I got up and started doing what I normally do: and that usually involved going to the gym. However, now knowing what I have learned at my own expense over the past five years, I knew I couldn’t expect myself to do a full-blown routine.
So, I did go to the gym.
And I did some light weights and a lot of stretching, just to get my blood flowing.
I felt rather horrible, I have to admit.
And it got me thinking about all the years I used to prioritize everything other than sleep. How I ever got through a workout with next to no sleep still baffles me.
Modern society seems to be all about the hustle.
Get more done.
Get it done faster.
Get it done better and faster.
And not only that but with so many distractions available (the internet, Netflix, YouTube, the countless books you can choose to read and new music to listen to), we often feel we just can’t possibly do and see it all in the 24 hours we are given each day.
I used to be extremely guilty of sacrificing sleep to get more done. Especially in my early twenties, but even as I got older, the only thing that seemed less important than everything else was sleep.
So I slept for six hours most nights. Then I cut it to five. When I cut it to four for three months straight, I’m pretty sure I started having short-term memory loss. Needless to say, everything in my life suffered. The feeling I had of getting more done was nothing but a very colorful delusion. Needless to say, I was getting nowhere with my fitness goals.
The body needs to rest if you hope to build muscle, and I was doing the exact opposite – giving it my all in the gym, and eating very right, but without the sleep I needed, all of that was practically wasted effort.
Not getting enough sleep messes with the normal processes in our bodies in a number of ways. And the worst part about it is that there is no do-over. Not getting enough sleep one week can’t be rebalanced by getting more sleep than you need the next. Sleep deprivation is a debt you can’t pay off.
And here’s what it does to you…
The first thing you notice when you don’t sleep well is the lack of energy. Since your body was not able to rest enough, you will feel more fatigued, both physically and mentally. Lifting things will be more of an effort. Running will be more of a pain. And in general, getting things done will get increasingly harder.
Of course, you can get used to this state and start considering it the norm. However, that still won’t make it right.
Sleeping less will increase your cravings, and I’m not talking about craving carrots or spinach. You will crave sugar and caffeine, the fuels your body knows can get you through the day (or night).
Sugar is the energy source our bodies can most easily tap into so when you don’t sleep enough and are low in energy, your body will shoot out signals sending you to the nearest Snickers bar.
Running on sugar and caffeine and less energy than you actually need will do a lot to mess with your head.
Not only will you become more irritable and have a shorter attention span, but your motivation will suffer as well.
In terms of fitness, where motivation is often what gets you through the pain and the strain, this compromise is anything but a good one.
The hormones our bodies produce are responsible for a lot of processes that we’re not even aware of. Others we feel very intensely, like a rush of adrenaline, or a spike in serotonin.
When our bodies are not getting enough sleep, one of the hormones that elevate is cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Two other hormones we produce more of are leptin and ghrelin. When these three are up, you will be much more likely to store fat, as you are not producing enough insulin.\
Sleep deprivation will also lower your production of growth hormone, which is meant to help your muscles and bones remain strong. Without it, gains become a lot more difficult (even nearly impossible).
Finally, when you do not rest, your body has no time to repair the damage you have caused when working out.
When we lift weights, we cause micro-tears in our muscles. These tears are how muscles grow: by causing this damage, we send our body signals to make these fibers stronger and thicker, which results in more mass.
When our body has no time for this process (and it happens when we sleep), no mass will be gained.
Knowing all of this will hopefully convince you that sleep is the last thing you should be giving up.
However, if you have been anything like me, and have not been sleeping well for months (or years), getting back to normal will take some effort.
Start by going to sleep and getting up at the same time every day. This might take some getting used to (as you may not fall asleep when you should, and waking up can be a challenge) – but make sure you persist at it, and your body will catch the drift.
Establish an evening routine that consists of the same things every night, in the same order. Make sure you stay away from screens (of all kinds) for at least an hour before bedtime. Read, journal, listen to music. Do something that relaxes your mind and body.
Once you fall asleep, you may still not be sleeping well. Besides making sure your room is well-aired and at a comfortable temperature, you can also try hacks like mouth taping. This will help you ensure your body gets enough oxygen through the nose, which will maximize your rest.
When the time comes to wake up, don’t snooze your alarm – just get up, and get into your morning routine. Do some light exercises or stretch, go outside, get a good breakfast in you. Looking forward to something enjoyable in the morning will help you get up.
While it may take some time to start sleeping better, the key to getting there is perseverance. You have ingrained a routine in your brain, and now all you need to do is break it. There will be some resistance and hardship, but once your new routine is set, your life will dramatically shift for the better.
Sleep is, rather than the time-waster we sometimes consider it, one of the most important activities we can engage in every day. Once you shift your mindset and start looking at it as such, you will soon start sleeping better. And that’s the start to feeling more energized, pumped, and ready to take on the day.