Tell me if this sounds familiar. You work out, you eat right – mostly – and you just. Arent. Seeing. Results.
Probably you also have a job that takes up some time. And maybe family that needs a lot of your attention. Hobbies. Email. A home that needs looking after. Candy Crush.
Yvonne* has been training with a colleague of mine for a few weeks now, and despite her best efforts she is just not seeing the results she’s working so hard for in the gym. She’s training three times a week with her trainer, she’s doing an hour of cardio on the off days and tracking what she’s eating. Her trainer asked me to sit down with her to discuss her nutrition because she’s starting to wonder if there’s something wrong with her…
But after talking to her for a few minutes I realized that the missing link had nothing to do with her workout program, or her nutrition. Sure, there’s room for improvement – there ALWAYS is – but neither factor was the deal breaker.
See, Yvonne works full time. She has two busy teenage kids. She and her husband just sold their house and are moving in two weeks. They have dogs that need walking morning and night.
Most nights she’s up until midnight, catching up on work email so that she can put her mind at rest before she goes to sleep…and then she’s up at 5:30am to do it all again.
Any guesses what the missing puzzle piece here is?
Yup, y’all were right: the missing link that is holding her back is…(drumroll please) SLEEP.
Because nobody can do it all on five and a half hours’ sleep at night.
Yvonne’s story is not unusual – we all tend to put sleep last on our list of priorities, especially when life gets stressful. Here’s the problem though: life IS stressful, and that pattern of putting sleep last on the priority list can become a habit. Often we don’t even notice it at first. When that happens and we slowly but surely start to burn out, we start eating absentmindedly, we develop digestive issues (heartburn, anyone?), we crave sugar, the number on the scale starts creeping up, we work out harder and try harder to control calories…and the cycle continues until we burn out.
Does this pattern sound familiar? Forgive me if I need to get on my soapbox here and lecture through my bullhorn: if you are not getting adequate sleep, you will not see the results you are looking for. Think of your overall health and wellness as a triangle: on one side there’s exercise, on the other side there’s nutrition, and on the bottom – the base of the whole operation – there’s sleep. Your body needs adequate rest and recovery for your muscles to grow, for your brain to process information, for all your systems to recover and find some balance again. When that doesn’t happen, the wheels start to fall off.
But don’t just take my word for it: the National Institute of Health recommends that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep at night. Everybody’s a little different but for most people 7 hours is the bare minimum before serious health problems start to manifest. “She’s full of it,” you might be thinking right now, “I get by just fine on six hours a night. Besides, I don’t have time for more sleep; I have too much to do – so much that I can’t even remember what’s next on my to-do list.” If that’s you, do yourself a favour: take off your martyr hat and go take a nap – you’ll have an easier time remembering stuff when you wake up.
Sleep loss is linked to all sorts of health nastiness that I could go on about for days – memory problems, brain fog, speech problems (ever feel tongue-tied on Friday afternoons? I know I do) but that might get long and boring and put people to sleep…so we’ll focus on most people’s primary goals in the gym: muscle gain and fat loss.
So you’ve been busting your ass in the gym in order to get bigger muscles – a noble pursuit! But it’s not the hours in the gym that are going to give you sick guns or delts that look like the great pumpkin; it’s the hours you spend sleeping. Why? Because when you work out you are actually causing damage to your muscles. When you’re sleeping, your body produces growth hormone, prompting your body to repair that damage and lay down more muscle tissue. If you don’t get enough sleep, you don’t grow.
Ever get really tired? Stupid question, I know – but think back to the last time you were freaking exhausted but you were at work or doing something where just going to sleep wasn’t an option. How did you feel? Hungry, right? That’s because sleep loss increases ghrelin production – the hormone that stimulates hunger and prompts us to reduce our energy expenditure. Basically what happens is that when we get tired and don’t have the energy to keep going, our bodies crave sugar – gotta get energy from somewhere! Being short on sleep also decreases leptin production, the hormone that tells us to stop eating when we’re full, making it easy to overeat.
But the biggest factor – the one that shoots most people in the foot – is that sleepiness makes it really hard to give a fuck about fitness goals. When was the last time you had a “fuck it” moment at 9am and ate a bunch of stuff you know you shouldn’t? Probably hard to remember, because at that time of day we’re focused. We’re rested, on our best behaviour, and ready to kick some ass! At 9pm, though – that’s a different story. Put the cheezies down and go to bed!