We talk a lot about the importance of recovery from exercise and how vital it is for our body transformation goals. Today we’ll address the most important of these recovery modalities, sleep. Dreamland is where we make the most dramatic changes in our body’s physiology. Those changes are directly related to what we do when we’re awake but, if we don’t take the precautions to ensure we get a good night’s rest, our hard work can get sidetracked. So let’s take a brief look at what happens to us when we sleep and how our daily lifestyle can improve this fitness process.

Approximately 70 million people in the U.S. suffer from sleep-related problems, according to the National Academy of Sleep. They also conclude that we lose around $100 billion annually in lost productivity and damages as a result of this. Lack of sleep affects concentration, memory, stress levels, alertness, and physical ability. It also affects our fitness results.

While we’re resting

When we’re awake, our body is constantly wearing down. During sleep, our body varies its behavior to rebuild itself even more efficiently. Among other things, we make more proteins and release hormones at different rates. So while we tend to think of sleep as a passive process, it’s actually very active. It all begins with our brain. Instead of shutting down for the night, our brain signals our body about what to do during the various stages of sleep. In short, neurotransmitters (one you’ve probably heard of is serotonin) signal the body that it’s time to switch modes. Once this occurs, our body begins a five-stage rebuilding process that we call sleep.

  • Stage 1 is light sleep. You’ve probably experienced this during boring classes in school. Your body is barely asleep, your eyes move slightly, and you’re easily awakened, usually with a startled “jump.” During this stage, you’ll often have dream-like visuals.
  • Stage 2 is when the eye movements stop and your brain waves begin to slow down.
  • Stage 3 begins deep sleep, as very slow brain waves, called delta waves, take over the more rapid brain waves, called sleep spindles.
  • Stage 4 is a deep state where all muscle movements stop. It’s hard to be woken during this state, and when you are, you’re often in a groggy, disoriented condition.
  • Stage 5 is called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. In this stage, your breathing becomes shallow, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your eyes jerk rapidly in all directions, and you have your wildest dreams.

We sleep in cycles wherein all five stages are completed in around one-and-a-half to two hours. As the cycles increase, we spend less time in deep sleep and more in stages 1, 2, and REM. We tend to be more interested in studying our dreams and how they affect our psyche than in what else goes on during sleep. But all five stages of sleep are vital for maximum recovery. Furthermore, since each stage duration tends to vary during the night, subsequent cycles are also important. In each stage, some functions get shut down in order to funnel more resources to others. Since we can’t do this while awake, sleep is the most efficient state of recovery.

While we’re awake

The main things that affect our sleep are food, exercise, medications, chemicals, and temperature. The neurotransmitters that tell us to sleep are all influenced by these factors and can be misled. Some of the more obvious examples of things that affect our sleep are caffeine, which we often consume when we want to stay awake, and medications, which usually provide warnings on their labels. But what’s also important to consider here is how some of these things affect our sleep cycles. Certainly “sleep aids,” such as alcohol, make it easier to fall asleep but harder to get into deep sleep. Let’s take a look at 10 ways we can improve our lifestyle to promote more thorough and restful sleep.

1. Exercise regularly

Like we weren’t going to say this! But, really, nothing promotes sleepiness like bodily damage, and exercise is an efficient way of breaking down your system in such a way that it can easily repair itself and grow stronger. Regular exercise puts your body into a habit of wanting to recover at night. If you exercise enough, your body will protest and fall asleep on the spot. The only downside to exercise can be if it’s done before bed. This is a response that varies with each individual. Some people can fall asleep immediately after a workout (a great recovery aid is a midday nap), but many are affected by the endorphin rush and can’t get to sleep right away. It’s something you should experiment with before slotting your workout into the evening hours. Workout-X is all about working out at home, so take a look at our best adjustable dumbbells list and get yourself a pair.

2. Eat better

Like we weren’t going to say this too. But your overall diet also plays an important role in your sleep patterns. Many “bad” foods, as well as gorging yourself, will make you tired, but don’t be swayed by this illusion. Swooning energy levels due to bad food may help you fall asleep but, a lot like alcohol, it will affect your sleep cycle and you won’t sleep as well or as long as you should. A diet consisting of mainly whole foods will keep your energy levels constant and help your body swing toward more natural cycles and sleep patterns.

3. Stay hydrated

The downside of drinking too much water may be waking up in the night to go to the bathroom, but this is offset by the upside, which is heat regulation as your body goes through its various sleep stages. A dehydrated body can’t sleep or recover well, and dehydration is one of the major factors involved in the hung-over state you may find yourself in after a bout of drinking.

4. Sleep in a cool, dark place

Each person’s tolerance levels vary, but most everyone sleeps better in an environment that’s both cool and dark. Turn your bedroom into a peaceful place that’s designed for sleep.

5. Wind down in the evening

A nighttime ritual can greatly increase your chances for restful sleep. A light stretching session along with some calming reading and herb tea is a common recipe for sleepy time. Do keep in mind that watching the latest UFC match or reading provocative literature may have the opposite effect on your brain. For an effective Beachbody way to wind down, try Pajama Time from Yoga Booty Ballet® Master Series.

6. Learn to not use an alarm

While this isn’t always possible, if you get your lifestyle in order, your sleep pattern shouldn’t require an alarm. Even if you wake up at a crazy hour to go to work, your body will get used to it if you get into a schedule. The only time you should need to use an alarm is for special occasions.

7. Don’t drink or smoke at night

I realize that this is when most of you will drink and smoke if that’s what you do. Since it may be difficult to change, perhaps consider changing your patterns. Habitual smokers tend to sleep only three to four hours at a time, which is also the case when you’re intoxicated. To offset this, begin to cut back as the evening progresses and hydrate. Just taking enough time to begin the restorative processes prior to bed can greatly lessen the effects of drinking and smoking and help you sleep better.

8. Don’t go to bed at a certain time

Go to bed when you’re tired. Forcing yourself to stay awake creates the wrong brain signals, as can going to bed too early. There are times we all force ourselves to stay awake or sleep early, but try not to make this your default mode. By listening and responding to your body’s signals you’re creating habits that you should live by. You’ll probably end up going to bed around the same time anyway—you’ll just have less stress.

9. Use sleep medications only as a last resort

Most sleeping medications are habit forming and have side effects. Of course, most doctors will tell you this, but you must also consider that the companies that make these drugs offer incentives for those who prescribe them. Be wary of the information you get. There are times when sleep medication can be handy, but it should always only be an option. It should never be a lifestyle.

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