Your fitness routine is in full swing two months into the year: You’re eating right and you’re exercising, but you’re not yet seeing the results you want.
What’s missing? It might be sleep.
So say an increasing number of studies that show sleep deprivation causing such negative outcomes as weight gain, an increase in overuse injuries, a decrease in muscle mass and a reduction in testosterone (which has a whole host of other negative effects, including low sex drive, depression and bone loss).
“You can have two people who are doing the exact same workout and eating the same good nutrition, but one is seeing huge progress and the other isn’t. A lot of the time, good sleep is the difference,” says Mansur Mendizabal, a personal trainer and kettlebell instructor in Washington.
“Sleep is the only time the body is fully recovering and rebuilding,” he says.
In other words, it’s not enough to take a day or two off from training and slouch on the couch and expect good results. It’s sleep — specifically deep sleep — that is the difference when it comes to such things as muscle recovery, mental acuity and reaction time, another important aspect of sports performance.
“It’s during the deep stages of sleep that all the tissues of the body repair,” says John Broussard, a sports medicine doctor in Washington. “But you have to get into all the stages of sleep in the proper sequence to get those restorative benefits.”
There are four parts of the sleep cycle: Stage 1 (near-awake), Stage 2 (onset of sleep), Stage 3 (deep and restorative sleep) and Stage 4 (deep REM or dream state), which occurs at about 90 minutes into each cycle.
“One of the reasons fibromyalgia patients often feel slow cognitively and tight in their muscles and tendons is because they never reach the deep levels of sleep,” says Broussard, who works with patient education at Regenerative Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. “They don’t get to hit that reset button.”
The same thing goes for people who take sleeping pills, he says. They don’t go through all the phases of sleep so they wake up feeling groggy instead of restored.
In other words, lack of sleep affects our cognitive and motor performance, Broussard says.
"We are performing every day no matter what the setting is."
But let's say the setting is the gym. What are the recommendations for adequate sleep, and what exactly does that sleep do for our muscle tissue?
"Many people think you build [muscle] in the gym, but you actually build when you sleep," says Chirjeev Sawhney, a personal trainer and fitness manager at a Gold's Gym in Arlington, Va.
This is because, during deep sleep, the body uses the protein you consumed during the day before and the growth hormone produced (also in deep sleep) to repair the muscle tissue you tore up during your workout, Sawhney says.
"It's when you repair that broken tissue that you get stronger," he says.
Mendizabal agrees that sleep needs to be addressed.
“Sleep needs to be made a priority. If you don’t sleep, your body is stressed, you crave food, your immune system is compromised,” Mendizabal says. But he recognizes that it isn’t possible for everyone to get the seven to eight hours recommended by the National Institutes of Health.
“Six hours is more realistic. But on a report card, that would be the equivalent of a D,” he says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about a third of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep a night. For those who want to improve their grade to an A, Broussard recommends the following measures:
▪ Make sure you have a bright work environment during the day.
▪ Try to spend at least one hour outside every day.
▪ Try to create stress-free evenings.
▪ Take magnesium or melatonin, both of which have been shown to lessen muscle tension and anxiety, before bedtime. Warm milk can also help.
▪ Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark, with no TV or other electronics (especially no blue screens, as they make it harder for the pineal gland to produce melatonin).
▪ Keep a pen and paper on the nightstand for important to-dos.
▪ Don't keep your phone by the bed unless you use it as an alarm clock (if so, turn on the do-not-disturb function and don't check texts or emails).