Waking early to hit the gym? Getting enough sleep is just as important

As a single mother and divorce coach,Carla was always on the go. After putting her two young daughters to bed at night,the 39-year-old would stay up till all hours,trying to squeeze in as much extra work as she could. Having to then wake early meant she was getting by on around five hours’ sleep a night. When her alarm went off in the morning,Carla would struggle to get up. “I was really burning the candle at both ends,” she says.

In order to stick to better habits,you have to really want to change your behaviour,says sleep physician Dr David Cunnington.

In order to stick to better habits,you have to really want to change your behaviour,says sleep physician Dr David Cunnington.Stocksy

The only way she could make it through the day on such little sleep was by chugging down coffee and snacking on sugary treats. While this kept her “functioning”,she was far from thriving.

Earlier this year,though,Carla decided enough was enough and began prioritising sleep. Instead of mindlessly scrolling and answering emails,she programmed her phone to go into sleep mode from 10pm to 7am,creating the space she needed to mentally switch off.

Getting a solid seven to eight hours’ sleep a night was a revelation. Carla’s energy levels rose,she became more even-tempered and “more productive in less time”. Instead of the “scattered energy” she used to get from caffeine,she could now cruise through her workload during daylight hours. Plus,she had time to unwind in the evening.

Carla’s story is familiar to sleep physician Dr David Cunnington. He notes that about half of Australians feel unrefreshed upon waking,yet many don’t actively prioritise sleep.

Cunnington says sleep is one of the three main pillars of health,along with nutrition and exercise. When trying to be healthy,many people “put all their eggs” in the exercise basket,for example,by waking early to hit the gym. But,he adds,getting enough sleep is just as important for health as eating well and exercising regularly.

In order to make sleep a priority,Cunnington says you need to get “philosophical” about why you want it. Sure,there are the obvious benefits,such as improved mood. But in order to stick to better habits,he says you have to really want to change your behaviour.

You then need to create space to allow sleep to happen. That has to start before hitting the hay,with Cunnington saying you need a period in which you do relaxing activities such as reading,watching TV or “just chilling” before bed. “We can’t run like mad things till 10pm,flick a switch and expect at 10.01pm to be deeply asleep. There needs to be a transition between ‘active daytime me’ and ‘quiet sleeping me’.”

After a period of rest,set aside time to get enough sleep but don’t put pressure on yourself to nod off. There’s a “tricky balance” between prioritising sleep and actively seeking it,says Cunnington. The problem with “yearning for sleep”,he says,is that it increases anxiety around it,making it more elusive.

Of course,it may take time to adjust to this new routine. Cunnington recommends trying to align your “sleep window” with your body clock. So if you’re a night owl,you might aim to get your seven hours from midnight,rather than 10pm. Aiming to wake around the same time each day can also help,as sleeping in can reduce your ability to doze off that night.

However,if you’ve been prioritising sleep and are still struggling to nod off,Cunnington recommends talking to a healthcare professional.

Since prioritising sleep,Carla now wakes refreshed. “It’s a much more restful and relaxed start to the day.”

Evelyn Lewin is a qualified GP and freelance writer.

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