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The Art and Science of Fitness | The criticality of sleep to reboot our systems

More often than not, our bodies perform everyday activities — going to work, playing a sport, exercising or walking around — with not much thought about sleep. Some of us even boast to the world that we just don’t need much sleep. According to pop culture, even Einstein didn’t need to sleep much. And fair enough, very few of us do fall at the fag end of the bell curve, and do just fine with very little sleep. But you simply wouldn’t know any better until you try things differently.

If you don’t sleep much, eventually there will come a day when you can’t focus at work and you are irritable while putting in the same effort as any other day. Your performance is far below what it normally would have been. You could have a runny nose, and it might also lead to an injury because you try harder to get the same results you are used to, but the body just doesn’t play ball. It simply doesn’t add up. Or that’s what you think.

Most of us spend one-third of our lives, ie 8 hours a day, sleeping, or at least that’s what it should be. Yet most of us take sleep very lightly, making it sound like a waste of time, definitely not associating it with productivity. Not enough trainers, doctors, therapists, and coaches ask you about sleep, subconsciously reinforcing its supposed insignificance.

Let’s understand the criticality of sleep through an example that will resonate with most of you in the digital era: A few decades ago, computers were big chunky desktops. Back then, besides the keyboard and screen, the main part of the computer was called the Central Processing Unit (CPU), which, if you may, was the brain of the computer. The basic practice was to switch off the CPU when you were not using it — a concept hard to fathom for all of us using laptops today, which don’t need to be switched off.

As much as technology has progressed by leaps and bounds, if you ask a techie how to fix something wrong with a high-tech gadget, the first thing they ask you to do is to switch the device off and then turn it on after some time. And most of the time, that solves the problem.

Think of sleep as rebooting our “CPU” to ensure greater productivity. Our bodies need rest to be ready for the next day. When we haven’t had our 8-9 hours of sleep, the sleep debt keeps adding up, and when it gets to 25-30 hours, there is a sudden breakdown of the system. This can be fatal. And Covid-19 has made it even more tricky. Those who are motivated to get things done every day at any cost tend not to rest enough. You need to rest when your body asks for rest. Apart from that one extra day off or doing low-intensity exercises, your sleep quantity and quality need to improve for your body to function optimally.

A study led by Dr HJ Drews from Christian-Albrechts University Kiel, Germany, found that having a sleeping partner helps in improving the quality of sleep.

Professor Matthew Walker makes a very practical point. “Men who sleep 5-6 hours a night will have a level of testosterone which is that of someone ten years their senior. So lack of sleep will age you by a decade in terms of the critical aspect of wellness, fertility, muscle strength and sexual performance.”

But as much as having a sleeping partner is beneficial, it is not a panacea because sleep habits and patterns vary from person to person. This can affect the quality and quantity of one’s sleep. For example, some are early risers, others are not; some prefer cold temperatures while their partners may not; and so on.

The solution is the Swedish sleeping method which is followed not only in Scandinavian countries but also in other parts of Europe. This method involves both sleeping partners having separate sheets or duvets. The thickness could vary depending on your preference for the sleeping temperature. This also allows the partners to get out of bed without disturbing each other.

This might seem too good to be true but it does help inculcate good sleeping habits that will benefit you in the long run, so try. If it doesn’t work for you, you can always go back to your old routine or try something different to help you sleep better. But if it does work, it could be life-changing.

Keep miling and smiling.

Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days

He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal

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