Its that time of year, the Black Friday equivalent for the fitness industry. People are signing up for gym memberships, signing on to weight loss challenges and overall making promises to themselves that they probably won't be able to keep.
I am sorry for that little taste of realism at the beginning of the year, but I have to keep it real. I am not writing this to say, “screw your new year's resolution you failure!”. I am here to say that your new year's resolutions can be real, as long as you know yourself and now how hard it is to create the change you desire.
When you sit down to write your resolutions (assuming you do this, many people have given up all hope of change) are you writing down short term or long term goals? Are you writing goals that are within your wheelhouse or are you shooting for the stars? I am not going to tell you either is wrong, rather I just want to shape your perspective. Short term goals are good because they can create the momentum you need to create bigger and bigger changes. Long term goals are good because they can give you the hope necessary to stay on target with your desired lifestyle.
For this year, I’d like you to try this out:
Write down the one thing that you feel must change about your life. The big thing that hangs over your head and makes it harder to love yourself. Now, I want you to create a staircase of smaller objectives that build towards that ultimate goal.
Let’s say that losing 30 lbs is your end goal. Losing weight is an end product of various lifestyle changes that people need to make. When someone says, “losing weight is just a matter of calories in, calories out” they aren’t wrong but they also aren’t painting the full picture.
The reality is, many variables impact how you burn calories and how you consume them. An easy example of that would be something like improving sleep. If you sleep better, you have more energy, so you move more (burning more calories). Also, when you sleep better, you make better food decisions (which can influence the amount of calories you bring in). So, instead of just stressing over the big goal and focusing on eating less and moving more, let’s build a foundation of lifestyle habits that make it easier to eat less and move more.
Now, when you start building your staircase towards your ultimate goal we can add some small things that will improve sleep. This way, we are not only affecting our long term goal, we are also improving our health overall.
I used sleep in the example above because I believe that it directly affects everything. Whether or not you are getting quality rest will determine what you do and how you do it when you wake up. So, if I may, I would like to help you with your new year's resolution this year. Let’s do a sleeping challenge!
True PE Sleeping Challenge
If you subscribe to my newsletter you will get these weekly updates with a little more information and instructions. However, if you are just reading this blog post alone you should still be able to fully participate in the challenge at any part of the year.
How will we attack sleep improvement?
In three parts:
1.) Waking habits/behaviors
2.) Daily habits/behaviors
3.) Nighttime habits/behaviors
Each week you will get a little tip on improving your sleep at all three of these points. Use the lists below as a reference, more information below that.
- Waking Habit
-- Daily Habit
--- Nighttime Habit
- Expose face to sunlight ASAP
-- Go outside and experience some sunlight
--- Limit Blue light 1-3 hours before bed
- Overhead stretch stand on tippy toes
-- Take stretch/self massage breaks
--- Stretch Hips for 10-30 mins right before bed
- watch breath first thing (hit snooze or get up and set a timer)
-- Do 2-5 check ins a day
--- Breathe light until you fall asleep
- Note timing of first meal
-- Watch caffeine consumption
--- Eat your last meal 2-4 hours before bed
Week 1 Breakdown:
The first tips for this sleeping challenge focus mainly on light exposure. When considering sleep improvement you have to first understand circadian rhythms and in particular, zeitgeibers. Zeitgeiber is a german word meaning "time giver" and in biology it is used to define something that signals the time of day to a given organism (in this case us). The main zeitgebers are light and food. For more on this topic check out my review on The Circadian Code by dr. Satchin Panda.
Light exposure (primarily blue/white light, like the kind your screen is emitting) is the first thing to indicate to your body that its time to get up. So for the first week (and hopefully in the future as well) we are going to use light to help aid us in waking up and aligning our rhythms. The first thing we are going to do upon waking is open the blinds and look outside. If you wake up before the sun you can also trick your brain by turning on blue/white lights from your screens and lamps to supplement for the sunlight. If you do this at the same time everyday, your body will develop a rhythm and you will wake up at the same time consistently. This can take anywhere from a couple days to a couple of weeks depending on the person.
During the day its important to reinforce this light stimulus by spending some time outside. Even sitting in a room with better lighting and windows will have an impact on your bodies ability to recognize the time of day. Not only is sunlight necessary for vitamin D synthesis, it educates the body on what it needs to be doing and what it needs to be preparing for. Experiencing light changes like a sunset can help prepare the body for sleep as long as you pay attention to your light exposure once the sun goes down.
To let your body know that the sun has gone down and its time to sleep, we will be limiting or completely cutting out our exposure to blue/white light. You can do this by completely turning off the lights or getting blue light blocking glasses and turning your devices to night mode. I recommend dimming all house lights, using blue light blockers and putting all devices away around 2 hours before bed. If this is hard for you, start off by putting the devices away an hour before bed and move up once your comfortable or if your situation changes.
Week #2 Breakdown:
Week 2 focuses on the physical behaviors to include into your sleep hygiene. Including exercise and stretching activities in your day has been shown to improve sleep quality, depending on the time of day and type of movement training. Just make sure that the activity at the end of the day is low-intensity and relaxing. At the beginning of the day and throughout the day, higher intensity physical activities can be used to maintain energy levels and provide breaks in the momentum of stress thats built up during the day.
My favorite move in the morning is an overhead stretch on your tip toes. I perform this move for only a couple minutes in the morning but it really wakes me up and balances/coordinates my body early in the day. Just reach as high as you can and come back down to your heels slowly and with control. If you fall back to your heels try it until you can settle slowly and notice your increase in control and balance.
Throughout the day, do small check ins with your body and notice tension that has been built up during the day. You can either massage the tension with your hands or a massage device like a foam roller or just stretch the area until the tension is resolved. Doing this throughout the day will keep your present in your body and make your job at the end of the night easier.
Before you go to bed, we are going to stretch for 10-30 mins, focusing on our hips and back. Moves like Childs Pose, putting your legs up the wall and the butterfly stretch are all good stretches for the evening. Really performing any kind of stretching with an emphasis on relaxation will be enough to get your body ready for sleep. Don't forget to limit your blue/white light exposure during this end of the day stretching.
Week #3 Breakdown:
Week three is all about the breath. Breath awareness is how I like to start incorporating breath work into my physical practice. If you have limited experience with breath training then you can limit your practice to just awareness. However, you have been with me for a bit or have practiced breath awareness through other people or disciplines, feel free to try the exercise I describe in this section at the end of the day.
Before I get to that, I just want to clarify how we are going to start our days, with awareness. First thing in the morning we are going to watch our breathing, nothing more or less. Setting a timer my be helpful but its not necessary. Oftentimes I just hit my snooze button and sit up to watch my breath. This gives me a good 9 minutes of awareness training at the beginning of my day before my alarm goes off again. If 9 minutes is too long, you can set a timer for a shorter period or adjust your snooze alarm. Simply follow the breath coming in (either at the tip of your nose, at the sides of our ribcage or just above your hips) and watch it leave. Sounds easy but isn't until you have put a lot of time into your awareness training, which is why you might want to set a short timer to start (maybe build up from 30 seconds or a minute).
During the day we are going to perform what I like to call "check-ins". I do these "check-ins" for posture and breathing usually but for now it will be for breath only. When you remember, just follow your breath for a couple of breaths. These "check-ins" work best when you need a short break, such as during a tedious activity. You may find that after a check-in you have more focus and energy to complete your given task. Just follow your breath like were going to do in the morning for a brief moment to halt the momentum of stress and chaos in your mind.
At the end of the day we are going to do something a bit more fancy! It's not really fancy but just a little more advanced than breath watching. This exercise is called breathe light. All you do is breathe a slightly smaller volume of air than normal, in hopes of slowing down your bodies functioning. As the body goes deeper into sleep your breaths get more shallow and light. All we are doing with this breathe light exercise is helping the body reach a state of sleep. If you find this activity stressful (which you might) you can go back to the breath watching and wrap up your day with that instead, it will have similar benefits. Either breath watching or breathe light training should guide you to sleep if you are truly tired enough to pass out.
Week #4 Breakdown:
If you read back to our previous discussion of zeitbgeibers you will see that I wrote food and light are the two main zeitgeibers. The same way that light indicates the time of day, food can tell our bodies that its either time to get moving or time to settle down for sleep. The first bite you take tells your body that the day has begun and it will require some work. Try to remember what time of day you usually eat (coffee with cream can also count as your first bite) and see if you can keep this timing consistent. That will allow your body to develop a regular rhythm and prepare all the necessary enzymes and digestive pathways for your first meal. If you are not a person who is hungry in the morning, feel free to move that time back. Contrary to popular belief, breakfast is only the most important meal time if you eat it regularly. It does a non-morning eater very little good to create an artificial habit of breakfast eating. Eat when you are first hungry, thats when your body is ready for food.
As for the caffeine consumption, I said "watch" your consumption because you will have to do a little experimenting to understand how it applies to you. The general advice is to avoid caffeine consumption within 10 hours before bed. The reason I won't give you that advice is because people metabolize caffeine differently so you will have to find out what the optimum amount of time is before your last cup of coffee and your bed time. I have found that the 10-12 hour range works best for me depending on my level of activity that day, the harder I workout usually the more caffeine I can get away with.
At the end of the day we are going to give ourselves 2-4 hours between our last bite and our bed time (beverages other than water are included here, especially alcohol). Play around with a time that works for you. Some people may find that 4 hours is too long because they are hungry by bed time, but remember that hunger comes in waves and will leave eventually, with or without food. Also, try to avoid foods that are high in carbohydrates before bed as these foods are mainly for providing energy. If your body receives a stimulus that you are feeding it energy, it takes that to mean that it needs to do work, when the opposite is true, its time to rest.
This month is going to be a gradual building of intelligent habits that will lead to better sleep and eventually better health. By getting exposure to light and food at properly scheduled times your body will develop a consistent rhythm and you will feel awake and energized when the sun is out and relaxed and sleepy when the sun is down. Adding some stretching and breath awareness will keep you focused and less tense throughout the day, making it even easier to fall asleep. I am excited to do this challenge with you all, let me know it goes on your end!
Happy Breathing and Happy Sleeping!