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Ask the Doctor: Sacrifice Sleep for Sun Salutations?

April 2011
Ask the Doctor: Sacrifice Sleep for Sun Salutations?

Q. In our busy lives people often don’t have time for both exercise and adequate sleep. Is some regular exercise regimen advisable—even if it means having to wake up early and cut into sleep time?

Answer : I am sure this is a daily dilemma faced by many. You may resolve to start a workout program, prep for it, and psyche yourself up for it…till that first morning when the alarm grates in your sleepy ears at 5:00 in the morning. It is so easy to turn it off in search of another hour or two of sleep. Yes, it is easy to say that your body needs the rest!

It is true that good health depends on the foundations of exercise and rest. Rest, primarily in the form of sound sleep, is a deeply restorative function that the body not only needs but demands. And according to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, sleep deficiency is at epidemic levels. The average working adult loses just over ten hours' sleep every week, which adds up to more than one complete night's rest. With the increasing pace of life, the number of hours of sleep that adults get on average has dropped from 9 hours in 1910 to 6.9 hours in 2002, with shift workers getting 5 hours and many Generation Xers reporting 5-6 hours—plus much stress and sleepiness. Results include shorter life, lower productivity, costly accidents, high blood pressure, poor concentration, and ties to another epidemic, that of obesity.

But when you put it the way you do—as a choice between exercise and sufficient sleep, my answer is not something you will like at wake-up time tomorrow: the benefits of exercise far outweigh those of the extra hour or two of sleep!

Here’s why. One’s state of mind has a direct impact on the quality of sleep and the quantity needed. And since exercise may be one of the best antidotes against anxiety and stress, an ongoing exercise routine as a consistent part of life may actually help decrease the time you need for sleep. My patients who exercise are not the ones who complain of insomnia or ask for sleeping pills.

The benefits of exercise can hardly be overstated. Experts in public health are now primarily focused on non-communicable diseases, caused primarily by lifestyles rather than by germs. And while the broad label of “lifestyle” in reference to diseases includes diet, stress management and several other elements, exercise and sleep are certainly primary components of lifestyle.

The demands of today’s corporate world and modern living cannot be met simply by sleep alone, no matter how many hours. It requires us to challenge our sedentary lifestyles. Physical mobility, activity and some routine of exercise, whether it be aerobics, yoga, weights, or simply walking or swimming, is no longer optional to live optimum lives. Exercise boosts the production, within minutes, of endorphins. It increases norepinephrines and serotonins. These and other “happy” chemicals create euphoria and fight anxiety and stress—without the help of antidepressant pills.

When you marvel at the long roster of benefits of regular exercise, it is easy to choose it over a full quota of sleep. Exercise is an immunity booster and protects against viral disorders as well as prevents diabetes, lipid disorders and osteoporosis. It reverses bad cholesterol and increases good cholesterol. It increases bone mass and cuts plaque formation in the arteries. Exercise decreases the pulse rate, thereby decreasing blood pressure. It boosts all the tissue in the body and blood flow to various organs, thereby increasing muscle mass, strength, and energy.

For those working long hours, it is best to exercise in the mornings, yes, even if it means less sleep, since the quality, if not quantity, of your sleep will improve!

Going a step further, a lifestyle coach might chide, “Why pit sleep against exercise?” Why not aim for both—adequate sleep and regular exercise, and look for other areas in your overcrowded lives to cut back? Meanwhile set that alarm and get exercising, whether doing swimming or sun salutations or whatever it is that you can.

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