The One Thing That's the Main Thing


  I don't know about you but sometimes I find the sheer volume of information on health overwhelming. One article tells you never to do "x" and then in a month you read an article that says "x" is the key to it all. If you eat/drink/do that one thing, then the weight will fall off and you'll be shiny and beautiful and all of your dreams will come true.

Do cardio; no, skip cardio.

Do your strength-training first; no, save it for last.

Eat butter; no, don't let butter come within 10 yards of you, whatever you do.

It's confusing. It's frustrating. And often you just feel like ignoring it all and telling the health and fitness community to shove off.

I hear you and I'm with you. This blog post isn't about magic fixes, or demonizing one food group, or adding one more "have-to" into your day. It's really about getting back to basics. It's about expanding your idea of healthy behaviors beyond things that feel like punishment (exercise falls into that category for many people) and incorporating things that are simple and easy and that feel good.

Things like sleep. I've told the story before on the blog, but sleep was my gateway healthy activity. And when I find myself in an unbalanced place in terms of my physical health, sleep is the foundational activity that I return to in order to reset things and find my equilibrium again.

Not exercise. Not diet. Sleep.

Sleep is the only thing I make sure I do enough of when I'm stressed out and overwhelmed. I only add things like exercise back into my life when I've gotten back on track with my sleep. Sometimes that takes a day or two, other times a couple of weeks.



And here's why: there is not a single function of the body that does not rely, in large or small part, upon getting adequate sleep. Here are just a few:

  • Sleep helps to regulate your hormones, including the hormone that generates feelings of hunger (ghrelin) and the one that gives you the signal of being satiated (leptin). If you don’t get enough sleep, the former goes up and the latter goes down. So, you feel hungry more often and have trouble feeling full, both of which can lead you to eat more.
  • Your body repairs itself during sleep. Your muscles, blood vessels, heart and other major organs use the time when you are asleep to fix damage and (in the case of your muscles) increase mass. If you exercise, sleep is when that microscopic damage you did to your muscles during your workout gets repaired and additional muscle fibers are generated.
  • Your immune system relies on sleep to function at its optimal level. Inadequate rest leaves you vulnerable to infections like the common cold, but also to chronic disease. Studies have found a relationship between insufficient sleep and an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
  • Your ability to complete basic and complex tasks at work, school or at home is compromised. Things can take longer, and you are more prone to making mistakes when sleep deficient. The National Institutes of Health reports that, “after several nights of losing sleep—even a loss of just 1–2 hours per night—your ability to function suffers as if you haven't slept at all for a day or two.” Your memory, athletic performance, creative powers and the ability to learn new things are all improved with adequate sleep.

Okay, so how much sleep is enough and how do we make sure we are consistently getting enough sleep? For adults ages 18-64, the National Sleep Foundation (yes, sleep is so important there are research foundations dedicated to it!), recommends between 7-9 hours per night. For adults 65 and older, the recommended range is 7-8 hours. They have a sleep duration recommendations chart, which you can access here.

The foundation also has tips for ensuring a good night’s sleep, including: sticking to a sleep schedule (even on the weekends); exercising regularly; avoiding caffeine, alcohol and using electronics in the hours before bedtime; and making sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and not too warm or too cold.

Here's what I recommend as a homework assignment of sorts. If you suspect that you aren't getting enough sleep, make it a project to get at least 7 and try for 9. See where you feel your best. For me, 9 hours is the key. That's where I feel like I have enough energy for my day and wake feeling well-rested. You may need less, but aim to get no less than 7.

Notice how you feel when you get that magic number of hours of sleep versus not. It really makes all the difference in the world for me, both in terms of how I feel physically and in my mood. I'm more patient, less prone to frustration and sadness.

So, give yourself permission to sleep even if that means that something like morning workouts have to go to the wayside for a bit. Not forever, just for now.

Trust that if you do that, eventually you will be ready to add purposeful movement back into your day. And this time, your body will be rested enough to support you.