I’ve struggled to sleep at the right time since my early teenage years. My mornings were nothing but a blur until 10 am and I have the most amount of energy when it is finally time to get some sleep. I had a constant battle with mental tiredness for the first half of the day. I’ve fantasized about creating a city where people sleep during the day and work during the night. I’d call it Nightville. While creating an entire community to fit my natural sleeping preferences isn’t too practical, I have finally found a way to coax my body into restful sleep at a more socially acceptable hour, and it doesn’t involve depending on the caffeine from tea or coffee.
The circadian rhythm
Every person is different. Some of us wake up early in the morning while others only start waking up when the lights go off. There is an internal body clock that regulates when you should feel sleepy and when you feel most awake. It is called the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm up-regulates and down-regulates hormones in a 24 hour cycle to optimize periods of rest and recovery. Cortisol, for example, should be highest in the morning and slowly taper off throughout the day until it reaches its lowest levels at night. Melatonin is cycled in the opposite direction.
Sleeping habits aren’t that easy to change
Unfortunately, our natural sleeping preferences are not that easy to change. People who, like me, struggle to fall asleep at night will probably have the same problem well into late adult life. While we might not be able to change our natural sleeping preferences completely, there are things that we can do to help the body adapt. This adaption can be compared to an elastic band. With the right techniques it can be stretched quite far, but it only takes a moment to snap back to its original state.
My strategy to correct my sleeping cycle
Creating or changing daily habits can have a great impact on other areas in your life. So how did I use exercise to get the right sleep at the right time? Exercise has the amazing effect of telling the body when to be energetic and when to relax. If you exercise at the same time every day, you will notice that your body starts to create more energy shortly before your exercise session in preparation for you work out session. There are also forms of exercise that have a relaxing effect on your body and may help to induce sleep.
Wake up in the morning
Every morning the first thing that I did was do jumping jacks until I started to feel a burn in my shoulders or legs. I initially tried doing pro-muscle-building exercises like push-ups, squats and planks, but I found that the intensity was too high for my nowhere-near-awake self. I did these exercises before my first sip of water in the morning. I could feel my heart rate increase almost immediately and I was wide awake straight afterwards. I had the same energy levels 5 minutes after waking up than what I usually would have had when the sun started to go down.
This energy lasted for a few hours. I am fortunate enough to be able to incorporate a 30 minute jog in the middle of my daily work regime. This meant that I could peak blood and oxygen circulation 5-6 hours after the energy-boosting effects of the morning jumping jacks started to fade.
My night time routine
I have developed a standard night time routine to help my brain know when it is time to wind down and prepare for sleep. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. As part of my experiment, I decided to add light stretching to my bed time routine. The second last activity that I did before bed, right before reading a good self-help book, was to lightly stretch all the muscles in my body, starting from my feet and working my way up to my neck. As a personal trainer, I don’t recommend static stretching (stretch and hold) before intensive exercise because it can relax the muscles too much and reduce overall performance. This made it a perfect for getting my body to settle down. The stretching alone has decreased the time that it takes for me to fall asleep by at least half. I am also pretty sure that my overall sleep quality has improved as a direct result of the stretching as well.
I felt an instant boost in my energy levels from the first morning because of the jumping jacks. The running was a great way to sustain this energy. I simply had to reschedule my normal exercise routine because I used to get all my exercises down after work before going home. I was concerned about the fact that the stretching would keep me awake because it increased my body temperature, but separating the stretches with a good book gave my body enough time to cool off.
The long-term results
It took me just over a week to feel a noticeable change in the amount of resistance it took to roll out of bed in the first place. A few weeks earlier, I used to have the bad habit of sleeping late when I had nothing on in the mornings of my off days, but my body now awakens at the same time in anticipation of the jumping jacks. By doing the jumping jacks and the stretching exercises 7 days a week, I am confident that I can cement my daily sleeping routine far into the foreseeable future.
What I learnt
This experiment taught me that physical activity (and the times at which we exercise) has a much greater impact on our sleeping cycles than what we realize. In the short-term, the energy-boosting or rest-enhancing effects of exercise may last for hours. If done regularly, you can train your body to produce energy at the times of the day that best suits you.