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Why you need to sleep well in order to be fit

If you're not experiencing any fitness gains after working out, it could be because you're not sleeping well

There's no point in working out exhausted.
There's no point in working out exhausted. (Istockphoto)

The secret to being fit and active is  a good night’s sleep. Yes, it is not just your exercise routine and food intake, but sleep too that plays an equally important role in achieving your fitness goals. In his seminal book Born To Run, author Christopher McDougall talks about how the world’s best middle and long distance runners who train in Iten in Kenya’s Rift Valley ensure they get ample sleep through the night and a power nap during the day to be able to perform to the best of their abilities.

Recreational runner Shailja Singh, 41, attended a running camp in Iten a few years ago. After returning from her camp, Singh altered her routine to include a nap in the afternoon on the days she trained. “We used to turn in early at night and wake up around sunrise and be ready to run by dawn. After that we would eat breakfast, talk to each other and do our chores or read. Then, we would meet for lunch and then retire to our rooms to sleep and be ready for our evening training session, which was followed by dinner and then straight to bed. Sometimes, we even stole a shuteye between breakfast and lunch,” she recalls. 

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Proper sleep is not only crucial for runners but for all athletes and fitness enthusiasts, say fitness and health professionals. “In very simple terms, sleep allows your mind and body to relax. When we sleep, the hormones in our body have a cyclical response. If we don’t sleep we feel exhausted, fatigued, our cognition decreases, our ability to perform activities the next day decreases. This is because when we do not sleep or we sleep fitfully, our body keeps working. It is in continuous motion and there is no scope for rejuvenation,” says Dr Vikas Maurya, director and head of department of pulmonology at Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, New Delhi.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States estimate that nearly one-third of adults sleep less than the recommended seven hours per night. The results are worse among teenagers. Chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to increase the risk for many physical and mental illnesses, found a 2006 study titled Sleep Disorders And Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Inadequate sleep also has a negative effect on mental and physical performance.

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Our muscles and organs keep performing at optimum capacity and not in a relaxed manner in the absence of sound sleep, explains Dr Maurya. They need to relax in order to rejuvenate. “When you are in REM stage [sleep] — you don’t calm down. And, because your body is working all night you have little or no energy left by morning. Therefore, it is very plausible that you will feel exhausted while working out or lethargic or extreme tiredness. Your body will not be willing to give everything it has to the intense workout,” he says. 

Poor sleep could also be the reason for not gaining as much muscle as you’d wish, running as fast or long as you thought you would, or even losing weight. Poor sleep and the resulting exhaustion usually leads to a dip in performance and effectiveness of your workout. In 2015, the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine noted that sleeping less than the recommended 7 hours a night could lead to weight gain, heart disease, depression and even strokes. Hence, if you aren’t sleeping well it is best to rethink your workout plan and focus on getting enough shut-eye first. The initial symptoms of the adverse effects of working out in a sleep-deprived state include exhaustion and headache, which could quickly worsen and lead to fainting. “Therefore, if you are not sleeping well it would be best not to overdo the exercise,” suggests Dr Maurya.

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The sleep-exercise relationship works the other way as well. While proper sleep is necessary for getting the maximum benefit from your workout, exercising, in turn, ensures that you are sleeping well. A 2017 review of studies exploring the interrelationship between sleep and exercise found that “exercise improved sleep quality or duration.” The review stated that exercise boosts sleep efficiency and duration regardless of the mode and intensity of activity. 

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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