Whether you’re someone with a list of 25 New Year’s resolutions, or someone with two or three key goals, we have a simple way of helping you achieve them.
You just need the first, important resolution in place first. Sleep.
Firstly, let’s address some of the common New Year’s resolutions and how sleep can help achieve them.
1. Get Fit
The human body needs sleep to maximise its exercise and performance potential. Studies have shown that sleeping for less than eight hours a night, and particularly less than six, can have the following impacts on your ability to endure physical exercise:
Ability to perform maximal exercise is reduced
The point of physical exhaustion is reached more quickly
The risk of injury is increased
And it’s not just sleep before exercise that is crucial to output and performance; sleep after exercise or training is equally important in order to promote physical recovery and muscle repair.
2. Lose weight
A lack of sleep also impacts your weight and appetite; less than seven hours a night increases your chances of weight gain and obesity, because:
Hormonal reactions mean that your sensation of being full is decreased, while your feelings of hunger are increased. In practice, this means that a lack of sleep makes you feel hungrier, while removing the signal that lets you know you are full
Regions in your brain responsible for considered and controlled judgements and decisions are muted, meaning high-calorie foods become considerably more appealing
When we feel tired, our desire to exercise is often reduced - worsening the problem of increased calorie intake by reducing the number of calories burned
Research has also shown that dieting while sleep deprived results in significantly more weight loss coming from muscle, as opposed to fat. On the other hand, dieting whilst getting a full night’s sleep results in considerably more weight loss coming from fat
On the other hand, getting adequate, good quality sleep will help you control your weight and appetite.
3. Improve appearance
Is beauty sleep a myth or a reality? Well, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a well-meaning colleague exclaiming ‘oh you look so tired today!’ so it seems sleep, or a lack of it, does have some impact on our appearance. And I’m sure we’ve all noticed the puffy eyes, dark circles and dull complexion in the mirror after a bad night’s sleep. But what does the science say?
Your body repairs itself overnight while you sleep, so skipping much needed shut eye can have visible consequences. Research suggests that as social animals humans are able to perceive facial cues related to sleep, with one study showing that sleep deprived people appear less attractive and less healthy to others than when they are well rested. Building on these findings, a further study found that people are less willing to socialise with an under-slept person!
4. Finally getting round to writing that book, painting that picture, knitting that jumper (insert creative pursuit here)
Studies have shown that sleep can positively influence creativity and problem solving. One study in particular demonstrated that participants who had slept in between attempts at solving problems were able to solve more difficult problems, when compared to participants who hadn’t. According to researchers, a restructuring of the brain’s connections occurs during sleep. In the context of sleeping on a problem, this facilitates insight.
In addition, sleep significantly enhances skill memory, which relates to the learning of motor skills, e.g. learning to drive or mastering the violin. Amazingly, the brain continues to improve skill memories overnight while you sleep, even without any additional practice. This process helps motor skills become instinctual and effortless.
5. Get promoted
It may seem obvious, from personal experience, to say that you are more productive when you are properly rested, but what does the research say?
A large study of over 4,000 workers observed how those classified as suffering from insomnia or insufficient sleep demonstrated the highest productivity losses. In addition, they were less motivated, had trouble focusing and remembering, and found decision making harder.
Reduced efficiency and productivity, and an increase in errors are all outcomes of insufficient sleep, with mathematical capacity and logical reasoning also compromised.
Not exactly the best way to impress your boss!
6. Sharpen your brain
A particularly remarkable benefit of sleep is that of memory. Sleep acts as a powerful memory aid, both prior to learning, restoring the brain’s ability to capture new memories, and after learning, in order to retain them.
When you sleep prior to learning your memory storage is refreshed, freeing up space to collect new memories.This process occurs every night, preparing your brain for the information of tomorrow.
When you sleep after learning, another powerful memory process comes into play. Here, memories accumulated throughout the day are saved and protected. Various studies have shown that sleep has a memory retention benefit of between 20 and 40 percent, when compared with an equivalent amount of time spent awake.
If you’re preparing for an exam, getting to grips with a new job or learning a new language, sleep is more beneficial than trying to cram in as much practice or revision as possible. Give yourself the best chance of success and sleep on it.
7. Focus on your mental health
Sleep and mental health have a complex relationship. It can be difficult to establish whether poor sleep is impacting on mental health, or whether poor mental health is impacting on sleep.
If you’re feeling down, sleep may be part of the problem. When you don’t get the amount of sleep you need, it can negatively impact your mood, energy and outlook on life. Over time, even low levels of sleep deprivation can affect your emotions, potentially leading to irritability, a lack of enthusiasm and depressive symptoms. The good news is you can reverse this logic; evidence suggests that treatment of sleep disorders improves mental health conditions.
8. And, especially relevant for the times, stay healthy
Sleep is a great protector of your immune system; it fights against infection and, if you do happen to fall ill, sleep is deployed to encourage rest and recuperation. On the other hand, it doesn’t take many nights of short sleeping to weaken your immune resilience.
A study by Dr Aric Prather at the University of California demonstrated a clear link between sleep and illness: the less sleep an individual acquired in the week leading up to exposure to the common cold virus, the higher their chances of catching a cold. Almost half of the participants who slept an average of five hours became infected, compared with just 18% of those who achieved seven hours or more.
For most people, the common cold is more of an annoyance than a serious medical issue, but it doesn’t take long for short sleeping to have more severe health consequences. A lack of sleep can kill cancer fighting immune cells, provide a perfect environment for its rapid growth if cancer is established and increase the risk of cardiac arrest.
With the current Covid-19 pandemic, protecting your immune system is more crucial than ever.
Sleep as a ‘Keystone Habit’
Another interesting way of looking at adequate, quality sleep is to classify it as a ‘keystone habit’ - an idea that was first introduced in Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. Keystone habits are small changes you can make that unintentionally carry over into other areas of your life. In other words, keystone habits create a domino effect that positively impacts other areas of your life.
Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of keystone habits. For example, one study showed that when participants lifted weights for two months, other positive habits were triggered; they began to eat healthier, reduced their alcohol intake, cut down on smoking, studied more and became tidier. Another showed that when participants kept detailed logs of everything they bought for four months, one positive habit multiplied into many, with improvements in diet, exercise, productivity and caffeine and alcohol consumption evidenced.
Let’s say then, you improve your sleep. You now achieve regular, quality sleep and as a result, you go the gym more, are motivated to prepare your lunch at home rather than buy something unhealthy and expensive on-the-go, and are notably more productive and enthusiastic at work. Who knows what other positive habits the domino effect will generate?
In a nutshell, with enough quality sleep, your other New Year’s Resolutions become easier to stick to. So if you are serious about your goals, put sleep at the top of your list - it’s the one resolution that may actually help you achieve all the others.
NB: This article is for information purposes, and does not constitute medical advice. If you are experiencing difficulty sleeping, or have symptoms which prevent you from sleeping well, you should contact your medical practitioner.