No activity is more sedentary than sleeping. But ironically, sleep is vital to maintaining a healthy weight and good cardiovascular health. Many people are fanatical about their diets, spend hours comparing and contrasting the benefits of different exercise systems or weighing up the latest research on supplements, and then all but ignore the importance adequate sleep has on their health. It’s time we start taking sleep seriously.

Unfortunately, 40 percent of Americans are sleep deprived. In fact, when compared to data from 1942, most are averaging a full hour less sleep. There are a variety of reasons people are sleeping less — stress, working longer hours, longer commutes, more distractions like television, smart phones and the internet, more personal commitments — but when you factor in the latest research in sleep science, the bottom line is sleeping less will adversely affect your health, including not achieving optimal results from diet and exercise.

Let’s take a look at some of the more noteworthy ways sleep deprivation can undermine good health and fitness…

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Poor Recovery

Regardless of whether you’re engaging in cardio or strength training, exercise will take a lot out of you. By it’s very nature, exercise is catabolic, meaning it breaks your body down. With the right nutrition and adequate time, your body will recover and adapt to workouts so you become stronger and more fit. Nutrition plays a vital role in helping your body to recover and re-build, but rest between workouts does too. The majority of the recovery process actually happens when you’re sleeping.

While asleep, your body works endlessly to repair any damage sustained throughout the day, including from exercising. Anabolic substances, such as growth hormone and testosterone, are released and increase protein synthesis, which is essentially how your body repairs muscle tissue. Amino acids derived from the food you eat are used like building blocks to re-build your muscles to their pre-exercise state and ensure they are ready to handle another workout.

When you reduce the amount of time you sleep, you reduce the amount of time your body has to repair any damage. The end result will be that you will you have less-than-optimal results from your training. Also, when your body has not had sufficient time to repair, you will not be able to train as intensely or as long during subsequent workouts, which will further limit your results.

Increased Cravings For Fast-Acting Carbs

Logically, it’s no surprise that a lack of sleep will leave you feeling lethargic and without energy. When sleep deprived, our mind is foggy, we operate at a slower pace than normal, and we lack our usual vigor. Recognizing our energy levels our low, our brain looks for ways to perk us up. Intuitively, our brain knows the easiest place to find energy quickly is food with fast-acting carbohydrates, such as sugar-packed junk food.

There’s no doubt a mid-morning donut and coffee will perk you up, but it will only do so for a short period of time. The rush of energy is fleeting and an hour or two later, you’ll experience a crash. To recover, you’ll reach for another energy-boosting snack and the process repeats. You’re on a sugar-fueled roller-coaster of ups and downs, staggering from one hit to the next just to make it through the day.

Needless to say, a diet high in fast-acting carbohydrates isn’t healthy. Not only will it lead to gaining weight, but fast-acting carbohydrates will also interfere with a restful night of sleep.

Reduced Will Power and Motivation

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said. When we’re exhausted, we try to find ways to avoid doing anything and everything, especially when it comes to health and fitness. Fatigue drains our will power and our motivation. How can we expect to exert ourselves physically when we are drained and exhausted?

You’ve probably been here before…You’ve got a workout planned for tomorrow morning and everything is in place; your gym bag is packed and you’ve set your alarm. But, instead of getting a good night’s sleep, you sit up half the night watching television or distracted by a problem at work. When zero hour rolls around, you wake up with a severe bout of “I can’t be bothered”, hit the snooze button and end up skipping your workout.

Too little sleep will make doing the things you know you should do for your health and fitness seem much less attractive; from preparing healthy, well-balanced meals to knocking out that last set of squats at the gym. We rely on will power and motivation to push us forward to achieve our goals. Without sleep, our will power and motivation will not be strong enough to keep us moving forward and accomplishing what we need to.

Weight Gain

When you’re not sleeping enough, you’re putting yourself at a higher risk for gaining weight — and not only from an increased reliance on sugary carbs for energy. In a study from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, researchers found that not getting a good night’s sleep reduces the amount of fat you burn in a day by over 50 percent!

Sleep is also vital for regulating hormonal levels. Hormones are essentially chemical messengers that tell your cells, organs and bodily systems how to function.

Leptin and ghrelin are two important hormones that can affect weight gain, as together they can serve as a hormonal recipe for increasing fat storage. A lack of sleep will elevate ghrelin levels while lowering leptin levels. Leptin is produced by your fat cells and is responsible for letting your body know when you’ve eaten enough. Ghrelin is produced by cells in the gastrointestinal tract and is responsible for letting your body know when you should eat. With an imbalance in your leptin and ghrelin levels, you will eat more and inevitably gain more weight.

Too little sleep will also increase insulin resistance, leading all the carbs you’ve been relying on for energy to be converted and stored as fat.

Strategies For Obtaining Better Sleep

Sleep is clearly vital for your body to function optimally, and it’s absolutely essential to achieving any health and fitness goals you may have. That said, simply knowing the importance sleep plays in optimal health will likely not lead you to change your sleeping habits. Sleeping is actually a skill, and as with improving any skill, sleeping more will take practice and effort. You need to prioritize sleep using these helpful strategies to improve the amount of sleep you’re receiving each night…

Consistency

Sleeping needs to become a habit. In order to form a habit, you need to adopt a consistent routine. To establish a routine, go to bed and wake up at consistent times, even on the weekend. With all the goings-on in life, you may find it difficult to establish a routine, but adhering to a consistent schedule will help your body know when to expect periods of sleep and wakefulness. We know to establish a bed time for our kids. Why? Because it ensures they receive a good night’s rest. And if it works for our kids, it will work for us too. And of course, make sure the schedule you adopt allows you to receive the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

Your Bedroom Should Be A Sleeping Sanctuary

Distractions are one of the biggest obstacles that interfere with our sleep. Specifically, all the gadgets we surround ourselves with — smart phones, laptops, tablets and televisions. All of these devices stimulate the brain, making it all but impossible for you to fall asleep.

Instead of using your bedroom as a technology hub, turn it into a calming sanctuary that promotes sleep. Remove all of the electronic devices from your room. If you use your smart phone as an alarm clock or want to keep it near in case your kids or other family members call with an emergency in the middle of the night, don’t leave it next to your bed. Put the phone somewhere else in the room away from the bed where you can still hear it and turn it on silent. Do not leave it on vibrate — turn it on silent. Many smart phones have a “Do Not Disturb” feature where the phone will be silenced for all calls, texts, and emails, but you can then add specific contacts that enable the phone to ring when they call. So, if a loved one calls with an emergency in the middle of the night, you’ll hear the phone ring. But, if you receive a work email from a colleague in the middle of the night, you won’t be disturbed.

Set A Comfortable Temperature

The temperature in your bedroom should be comfortable to promote sleep. Adjust the thermostat, open or close windows, wear appropriate sleepwear, and modify your bedding as necessary. Many people find a slightly cooler environment is ideal, but find the temperature that works for you. Use whatever means necessary (fans, heaters etc.) to control the temperature of your bedroom and remember that a cooler temperature not only enhances sleep but may even cause your metabolism to work faster, burning more calories.

Keep The Room Dark

A dark room with adequate window shades will reduce light pollution and promote longer sleep in the brightness of the early morning. Our sleep cycle is closely linked to light (circadian rhythm) and we sleep better in darkness. According to Dr. Charles Czeisler, dubbed “the sleep doctor”, as he serves as the Director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Chief of the Sleep Medicine Division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, light “affects our circadian rhythms more powerfully than any drug.” So, take steps to block out all external light sources, including lights from any electronic devices you didn’t remove from your sleeping sanctuary. If the room is still too bright, look into purchasing a sleep mask.

Keep The Room Quiet

Depending on where you live and who you live with, ambient noise can be a major problem. Noisy neighbors, barking dogs, creaking floorboards, and rowdy teenagers all can make falling asleep and staying asleep difficult. If there’s no way to silence the noises flooding your room, a white noise generator may help drown extraneous sounds so you can sleep more peacefully. White noise can be simply static or a recording of rain on a tent, the sound of a waterfall, or the sound of waves crashing. There are several apps available for purchase on your smart phone that can generate white noise. A fan can also be an effective source of white noise.

Avoid Caffeine Later In The Day

Caffeine is a powerful stimulant and can interfere with your natural sleep rhythms. Avoid coffee, tea, soda and chocolate late in the afternoon and evening. Starting in the afternoon, turn to non-caffeinated beverages.

Exercise

Exercise will not only improve your energy levels throughout the day, it will help you sleep better at night. Exercise helps reduce stress, which can adversely affect sleep. Also, our body requires sleep to repair the damage done during exercise. According to Jessica Alley, lead author of an exercise/sleep study conducted at Appalachian State University, exercise improves sleep, helps maintain muscle, strengthens bones, and improves cardiovascular health. Now, it should be noted, if you experience chronic insomnia, don’t expect to exercise vigorously tomorrow and sleep soundly tomorrow night — improvements to sleep are gradual.

Sleep-Enhancing Foods

Several types of nutrients and foods can actually help you to sleep. Here are a few…

Magnesium – a powerful sleep-aid, magnesium serves to calm and soothe the central nervous system. Foods rich in magnesium, include: wheat bran, almonds, cashews, blackstrap molasses, and kelp. Magnesium supplements (such as IsaFlush) are another great source of magnesium.

Melatonin – a hormone naturally produced by the tiny pineal gland in the brain to induce and sustain sleep. Melatonin can help people fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and fall back asleep if awoken too early. Unfortunately, our ability to produce melatonin starts to decline with age — levels drop below a maximal level by age 35. However, melatonin is offered as a supplement, which can help aid in falling asleep more quickly and sleeping more soundly.

Calcium – a mineral that serves as a natural relaxant, and similar to magnesium, it can calm and soothe your central nervous system. Foods rich in calcium, include: milk, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt.

Vitamin B6 – a deficiency in vitamin B6 has been linked with lowered serotonin levels and poor sleep. A deficiency in vitamin B6 is also linked to symptoms of depression and mood disorders, which can lead to insomnia. Foods rich in vitamin B6, include: sunflower oil and seeds, pistachio nuts, fish, bananas, avocados and spinach.

Tea – some teas also help to relax the body, including peppermint and chamomile teas.

Conclusion

You’re not going to change your sleep habits overnight. But, if you recognize the importance sleep plays in good health, prioritize sleep, and develop and practice productive sleep behaviors, you will start to sleep better, leaving you rested and more energized to tackle each day. Needless to say, if you continue to experience frequent bouts of insomnia, you should consult your doctor or a sleep specialist.

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