The Importance of Quality Sleep

by Beverly Hosford, MA

Sleep influences our demeanor, our choices, and how others perceive us. It shapes our waking hours, leaving us alert, calm, focused, and joyful—or tired, grumpy, distracted, and unhappy.

That makes sleep a crucial concern for our harried clientele and for ourselves, as busy fitness professionals. We all try to sneak by without enough sleep, and we all pay the price for sleep deprivation. Read on for the latest research on sleep, plus how to bring up sleep in your clients’ sessions or at your business.

Sleeping in Stages

Research is uncovering the mystery of what happens during the four stages of sleep (Finkel 2018). One thing is clear: We need all of them, every night—just as we need fruits and vegetables, or cardio and strength training. We can get by without sleep occasionally, but losing sleep chronically has consequences.

The stages of sleep are unique and valuable. During the first half of the sleep night, there is more nREM (non-rapid-eye-movement) slow-wave sleep (stages 3 and 4), called deep sleep. During the second half of the sleep night, there is more REM (rapid-eye-movement) dreaming and lighter sleep. Sleep researcher Matthew Walker, PhD, says nREM is involved with memory storage, while REM is the dreaming sleep (known for hallucinations and paralysis) (Walker 2018).

A late bedtime and early alarm often minimize REM sleep, which has been linked to emotional health, problem-solving, and creativity.

Sleep’s Impact on Wellness

The NSF and Sleep Health Foundation both recommend 7–9 hours of sleep for adults (ages 18–64), 7–8 hours for older adults (65+), 8–10 hours for teenagers (14–17), and 9–11 hours for children (6–13) (SHF 2015).

Getting people to sleep better aligns well with the mission of fitness professionals. We know how to plan, motivate and educate. And sleep research covers our core areas of focus: weight loss, performance enhancement, and injury prevention, and behavior change.


Sleep may not directly help somebody lose weight, but lack of sleep affects food choices. “On a simplistic level, your appetite changes,” says Charles Samuels, medical director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, Alberta, in a report available on Lack of sleep alters levels of ghrelin, leptin, and endocannabinoids, three appetite hormones (Fields 2016; Hanlon 2016). “We have very substantial research that shows if you shorten or disturb sleep, you increase your appetite for high-calorie-dense foods,” Samuels says (Fields 2016). Moreover, research suggests that sleep restriction can hinder weight management, a risk more people need to know about (St-Onge 2017).


Studies on basketball players have shown that getting enough sleep correlates with improved performance and fewer injuries (Walker 2018). In fact, research has shown that just one night of partial acute sleep loss can lead to elevated levels of cortisol, which can affect the resiliency of the stress response (Leproult et al. 1997).


In his book Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and YOU) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage With Life (Penguin 2016), Stuart Shanker points out that it’s tough to resist temptation when stress load is high. He shares stories about clients who made smoother health-related decisions after reducing stress. We all know it’s hard to sleep when stressed, so paying attention to this relationship is essential.

Meditation, mindfulness practices, and even naps are emerging in our culture as ways to counteract the effects of our productivity-driven, overstimulated society. Working downtime and rest into the day is part of the sleep solution (Edlund 2010). We’ve got to stop pushing our way through the day, expecting to crash at night and wake rejuvenated in the morning.

Thankfully, stress reduction is an ongoing conversation in the fitness industry and an outcome of regular exercise. We need rest, sleep, and recovery to complement exercise effectively.

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