Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Active women all have at least one thing in common: between the gym, work, the grocery store, home and a thousand other daily errands, they spend their day go-go-going everywhere but to bed. But the more you hustle and bustle while ignoring your pillow, the more likely you are to be at risk of missing out on something that could make you leaner, more muscular and happier.
Science is increasingly showing that the secret ingredient to the good life is sleep.
It can lead to improved workout performance and increased fat loss whether you’re a training newbie or a fitness buff. “There’s definitely a connection between sleeping well and being slimmer,” says Jessica Matthews, MS, E-RYT, exercise physiologist and ACE-certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. “Many studies suggest that adequate sleep helps with both weight loss and weight maintenance.”
It’s true: in September 2012, the Canadian Medical Association Journal drew global attention to the correlation between a lack of sleep and obesity. The study suggested that total sleep time and quality of sleep predicted the fat loss of people enrolled in a weight-loss program. Individuals who watched their calories, were physically active and got 8.5 hours of shut-eye per night, compared to those who slept just 5.5 hours, lost more body fat. Another 2012 study published in the journal SLEEP revealed yet another breakthrough in sleep research: getting adequate shut-eye can help us override the genes that determine our weight – this means that if obesity runs in your family, getting about seven hours of sleep may be one of your best bets for achieving and maintaining a healthy, fit physique.
Finally, sleep is a critical part of the fitness equation for women who want to build lean, toned bodies because it is essential for muscle growth and recovery. All that pumping you do in the gym won’t show up on your arms, shoulders or calves until your muscles have had a chance to build and breathe, which doesn’t happen instantly during your workouts, but rather while you’re asleep.
See AlsoSeven Tips For Better Sleep
Still not convinced that sleep matters? Consider this: a Brazilian study found that sleep debt can interfere with the cellular function of the body as a whole, and can cause a hormonal imbalance that can lead to the loss of muscle mass and contribute to less effective muscle recovery after exercise. It’s time to get serious about your sleeping habits.
Your Number-One Move Before Bed
Ease your body into a relaxed, sleep-ready state with this technique:
This yoga-inspired move is easy and can be done from between the sheets, setting the stage for a restful transition into sleep.
Step 1: Lie down in your bed and place a pillow or bolster behind your back, beneath your heart.
Step 2: Let your arms rest at your sides, palms up.
Step 3: Breathe slowly and consciously. If you take yoga classes, employ the same breathing style you use during these classes.
Step 4: Hold this position for as long as you want, then remove the pillow or bolster and fall asleep.
Your Sleep Cycle
You might think that when you turn in for the evening, your body and mind aren’t doing much and that sleep is a static state. In fact, sleep involves five stages and a complex 90-minute cycle that repeats throughout the night with varying intensity.
Here’s how the five stages of sleep and 90-minute sleep cycle work:
Stages one to four are all non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stages of sleep. During these stages, your brain waves slow down considerably. Your eyes don’t move back and forth rapidly during NREM like they do in the later stages of sleep.
Stage One: This light stage of sleep is the official start of the sleep cycle. Your brain now produces slow, high-amplitude theta waves. This is the shortest sleep stage, during which muscle activity slows, although you may experience occasional muscle twitching or vivid sensations (such as the feeling that you’re falling.)
Stage Two: Your brain starts to produce rapid bursts of rhythmic brain activity known as “sleep spindles.” Your body temperature starts to decrease and your heart rate begins to slow. Your muscles relax more. This is the longest stage, taking up half of the cycle.
Stages Three & Four: Now, deep, slow delta brain waves begin to emerge. This is the transition between light sleep and very deep sleep, also sometimes referred to as “delta sleep.” Stages 3 and 4 are often grouped together in the sleep cycle, with Stage 4 being distinguished by more active delta brain waves. Stages 3 and 4 provide the perfect environment for muscle regeneration and fat burning.
Stage Five:You’ve made it to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It involves eye movement, and an increase in the rate of respiration and brain activity. Your brain becomes more active, while muscles become more relaxed. This is the stage when your brain processes information and memories from the previous day.
Eat For ZZZs
What are the best sleep foods? “From a training standpoint, complex carbohydrates and foods that help calm the mind but aren’t heavy are good for restful sleep,” says exercise physiologist Jessica Matthews. Her favorites: bananas, yogurt or a turkey sandwich.
Also, try this smoothie recipe: blend together 1 cup tart cherry juice + ½ banana + ice + ¼ tsp vanilla extract + ½ cup soy milk. Enjoy!
The Sleep/Slenderness Connection
According to a 2012 study by University of California researchers, sleep loss may affect the way we eat, as brain activity in the frontal lobe — the part responsible for helping us make controlled, complex decisions, such as making healthy food choices — is significantly impaired as a result of sleep deprivation. Clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD, Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine (ABSM), explains the relationship between sleep deprivation and diet derailment in four steps:
1. Your metabolism begins to slow down. “Your body is in survival mode,” says Breus. “It doesn’t know why you’re staying up and thinks you may be in some sort of crisis.”
2. Cortisol hormone levels go up. This is a stress response, and causes an increase in appetite. “It goes back to caveman days, when we had to forage for food to gather more energy. So two very primal things are going on here: slower metabolism and heightened appetite.”
3. Your hormones start to work against you. “Two hormones in particular are at play here: ghrelin, which is the ‘go’ hormone and plays a role in appetite stimulation, and leptin, which is the ‘stop’ hormone that tells you when it’s time to stop eating.” With too much appetite-inducing “go” hormone and not enough “stop,” tiredness can make overeating almost impossible to avoid.
4. You make poor food choices. You’re tired, which means your decision-making capabilities are hampered. Also, “High-fat and high-carb foods elevate serotonin levels, which can help calm our systems down,” says Breus. When you’re feeling exhausted, calm and comfort are exactly what you want, so you’re more likely to reach for junk.
Q&A: We’ve done our homework to answer your most pressing sleep questions.
Q: As an active woman, how much sleep should I get ideally every night?
A: According to the Mayo Clinic, most adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep per night. “What I often tell people is that if you’re waking up five minutes before your alarm goes off, then you know you have gotten the best amount of sleep,” says sleep specialist Michael Breus.
Q: If I’m tired in the morning, what’s more important: sleep or an early workout?
A: This always depends on the situation, but Matthews says getting up and working out is generally a good idea; Breus agrees. “It’s important to wake up at the same time every day, so even if you went to bed late the night before, you should still be getting up at the same time and having your workout.”