In a game of inches, in a society where everyone’s trying to win, what makes the difference? What pushes someone over the finish line first?
Training? Maybe, but everyone exercises. Motivation? Possibly, but all racers have drive. It’s something simpler than that, and if you take it seriously, you could have an edge on a lot of people: Sleep.
Cutting sack time might seem like a good way to prove you’re no slouch, but a regular lack of sleep can affect cognitive faculties and emotional wellbeing, as well as lower the body’s ability to fight chronic illness.
In fact, tough guys who say “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” may find that statement coming true sooner than expected. Research from Harvard Medical School reveals that sleeping five hours or less per night increases the risk of death from all causes by roughly 15 percent.
What about those leaders who built corporate empires, ruled vast nations, and generally crushed it on a regular basis on little more than a nightly nap. People like Winston Churchill, who got by on four or five hours of sleep. Or Marissa Mayer, who famously worked 130 hours a week while at Google.
They’re outliers, and even still, who’s to know what else they could have achieved with a little more shuteye?
Researchers at the Center for Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, investigating whether people could severely reduce their sleep without consequences, discovered that while initially those who slept less saw a decline in their cognitive performance, eventually their feelings of tiredness plateaued and became their new normal.
But in this new normal, while the brain’s faculties continued to freefall, the tired folk stopped noticing because they didn’t feel any more beat than usual. In other words, lack of sleep doesn’t spark your stamina. It slows you down. You’re just too tired to notice.
So how do you ditch the “sleep is for the weak” mantra and get the kind of slumber that will truly make you fighting fit?
Think Quality and Quantity
The quality of your sleep is as important (and perhaps more so) than the number of hours you clock. Two studies carried out by Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, found that measures of health, well-being, and sleepiness were more directly related to quality, not quantity, of sleep.
That said, the participants slept an average of seven hours a night, which is also the number of hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.
Stick to Your Sleep Schedule
Sleep regularity has been found to improve well-being more than attempts to “catch up” by lengthening sleep time on ad-hoc nights. A rigid sleep routine is a notable part of the U.S. military’s basic training. Nightly “lights out” at 9 p.m. is strictly followed by ringing alarm at 5 a.m.
Lawrence Epstein, M.D., co-author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep, states in his book that being in sync with your internal clock is key to good sleep, so try hitting the sack and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
Don’t Skip Your Workout
According to a poll from the National Sleep Foundation, people run, cycle, swim, and participate in competitive sports sleep better and feel mentally sharper throughout the day than those who don’t. In the survey, 83 percent of the individuals who claimed to be vigorous exercisers reported regular, satisfying shuteye while less than half of the non-exercisers did.
Have More Sextas
Humans are monophasic sleepers, which means they sleep once during a 24-hour period. However, we used to be biphasic. Ancient Romans always retired for a noon-day snooze, which they called a “sexta” (the root of the Spanish word, “siesta”), while further historical research has highlighted the habit of a first and second sleep in pre-industrial Britain.
Nowadays, we fight our tiredness, but it may be better to give in and take a 20-minute to 2-hour nap, which can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents. In fact, a NASA study on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved their performance by 34 percent and alertness by 100 percent.
Make Your Bed
Not smoothing out your bedspread each morning may also be harming your slumber. According to survey from the National Sleep Foundation, seven out of 10 people said they made their bed every day or almost every day and were 19 percent more likely to report getting a good night’s sleep than those who didn’t fold the duvet.
Navy SEALS are also taught about the importance of making their bed as a means of accomplishing their first task of the day. In his 2014 commencement speech to students at the University of Texas in Austin, admiral William H. McRaven noted that making your bed every morning reinforces the idea that little things in life matter and are the steps to bigger accomplishments.
“And, if by chance you have a miserable day,” he said, “you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”
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