Sleep your way to better fitness! That’s the message of this Provision. Before worrying about endurance, strength, flexibility, or balance, it’s important to pay attention to the three R’s of optimal fitness: rest, relaxation, and recovery. If that strikes you as surprising then you may want to read on. The science of evolutionary biology speaks loud and clear: how much and how well we sleep are principal variables in the fitness equation.
Let’s start with an analogy that follows directly from the Optimal Wellness Prototype : sleep is to fitness as water is to nutrition. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built and from which everything else flows. If we do not sleep enough, and if we do not sleep well enough, then all the exercise in the world will not get us into shape. On the contrary, it will drive our bodies into the ground and it will lead to illness rather than wellness. If we do sleep enough, on the other hand, everything else will fall into place when it comes to nutrition, fitness, and social support. Sleep is that important.
- Drink enough. 8 glasses a day is about right for optimal nutrition.
- Drinking less than 8 glasses per day contributes to dehydration and causes health problems, such as asthma and autoimmune disorders, even if we don’t feel thirsty.
- More is usually better, although too much water can also cause health problems, such as hyponatremia.
- Drink clean water. In the absence of a clean, natural source, drink freshly filtered or distilled water.
- Drink only water. Or at least drink no calories. Fresh-brewed, unsweetened green tea, for example, is a good alternative.
- Drink at regular intervals. The body can only process so much water at one time.
- Appreciate water. Water is sacramental and has the ability to connect us to the source of life itself. Even sitting by a body of water is rejuvenating.
The same points can be made about sleep. They all hold up, to a surprising degree:
- Sleep enough. 8 hours a might is about right for optimal fitness.
- Sleeping less than 8 hours per might contributes to fatigue and causes health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, even if we don’t feel tired.
- More is usually better, although too much sleep can also cause health problems, such as depression or Parkinson’s.
- Sleep in a dark and quiet space. In the absence of such an environment, sleep with an eye mask and ear plugs.
- Sleep until you wake up naturally. Or at least pay attention to the 90-minute sleep cycle when setting your alarm.
- Sleep at regular intervals. The body benefits from regularity when it comes to sleeping and waking; an afternoon nap is also helpful.
- Appreciate sleep. Sleep is sacramental and has the ability to connect us to the source of life itself. Even lying quietly, while awake, is rejuvenating.
The reason sleep and water share so much common ground is because of our evolutionary inheritance. We’re not free to do whatever we want when it comes to health and wellness. We need to work with our genetic inheritance, whether we view that as the product of natural selection, divine intervention, or both.
I, for one, have always felt comfortable with a both-and interpretation. Although it’s been more than three decades, my undergraduate major from Northwestern University was in the History and Philosophy of Science. From there I went through the Divinity School at Yale University. I never have seen a conflict between science and religion. I embrace them both as adding value to my life and to the life of the world. Evolution and creation are not in competition with each other. They work together, as a spiral dynamic, to call forth life.
When it comes to human life, the past 2.5 million years are of particular relevance. That’s how long different species of the human genus have been on the planet. We’re not talking about chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, or orangutans (they’ve been around that long too, but on a separate path of development); we’re talking about actual human beings with whom we have the most in common.
Of all the different human species, only one survives today. We call that species “the wise one,”Homo sapiens, and science has now established what religion has long suspected: everyone alive today descends directly from a single couple. That couple was the product of a line in Africa that goes back about 250,000 years. They were not the only Homo sapiens alive at the time, but they were the lucky ones whose DNA courses through all of our veins today. Genetically speaking, we are all brothers and sisters.
The conditions that enabled our ancestors to evolve the large brains and complex social structures that have become the hallmark of our species are the conditions most suitable for human development. Fortunately or unfortunately, those conditions no longer exist. We no longer live in small groups, near the equator, as semi-nomadic foragers and hunters. As a result, we no longer suffer the problems they had with infectious diseases, trauma, and childbirth. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we have developed new problems, chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, that are often labeled “diseases of civilization.”
To avoid these health problems we need to heed the wisdom of our ancestors, still expressed in our genetic makeup. There is little difference, genetically speaking, between people alive today and people who lived 40,000 years ago. Contrary to the popular image of grunting savages, people who lived 40,000 years ago • a full 30,000 years before the advent of agriculture and civilization • had basically modern anatomical structures, languages, and family groups. Cleaned up, they would go unnoticed in modern society.
But they would have no idea what to eat, do, or make of our environmental changes. Things that we call food would be both unrecognizable and undesirable. We’ve talked about those differences, stemming from the agricultural and then the industrial revolutions, in our series on optimal nutrition. We’ve also talked about how to eat like our ancestors, by drinking only water and eating only fruits, vegetables, fungi, nuts, seeds, as well as wild fish and lean, organic meat. These things promote optimal wellness on the input side of the equation.
Our ancestors would also have no idea what to make of the way we work, play, sleep, relax, and worship. Sitting in front of a computer or television set is about as far away as one could get from their world. They did not work indoors, sitting down, to earn money that would buy them the stuff of life. They worked outdoors, moving around, to directly meet their survival, safety, and social needs.
Their outdoor lifestyle may sound like a lot of work, but they were not as busy as we are today and they were busy in a different kind of way. I liken their work to mowing the lawn. When I go out to mow the lawn, I know what I have to do. I know where to start and I know when I am done. Throughout the activity, my heart rate elevates, my muscles strain, and I sweat in the sun. With each outing, I make the activity interesting by following different patterns and noticing different things. The whole process is rather delightful, almost meditative, and surprisingly satisfying. It is stressful, but in a different sense than the continuous flow of email and deadlines. It requires a burst of activity followed, ideally, by a glass of cold water and a chance to relax.
For 30,000 years, that was the nature of work for human beings. We did what we had to do and then we were done. Although some activities, like big-game hunting, might take several days to complete, they would be followed by a time of recovery to eat and enjoy the spoils. After working hard and celebrating, we would rest and sleep. When the sun went down, activities would be limited to the things people do around the campfire. In the heat of the day, people would find shade in which to lie down and rest.
Living near the equator, days and nights were always about twelve hours in length. The sun would come up around 6:00 AM and set around 6:00 PM. It does so to this very day, with no more than 18 minutes of variation, one way or the other, over the course of the year. That was the pattern that we lived with and evolved from through millions of years. That was the pattern that our bodies still respond to and benefit from today. Up at dawn, followed by twelve hours of activity in the light, then down at dusk, followed by twelve hours of recovery in the night.
All that began to change with the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Not only did we start eating different foods (many of which were not that healthy); we also started working and resting in different ways (many of which were also not that healthy). Before the advent of modern supply chains, it took more rather than less work to make food come to you rather for you to go to the food. Think tilling the soil, planting seeds, pulling weeds, watering, and harvesting not to mention the tasks of food preparation, storage, and animal husbandry. This agriculture thing is not for the feint of heart!
Agriculture, then, began the process of making us lose sleep in order to get our work done. Civilization, and especially, urbanization continued that process as more and more people spent more and more time indoors rather than outdoors. The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, as well as our health, was the taming of electricity and the widespread use of the light bulb. After 2.5 million years, we were suddenly able to do things at night that had never been done before. With industrialization and now computerization, the natural rhythms of light and dark, work and rest, on and off were interrupted irreversibly. We have ended up with a 24/7 world that is always on the go.
Unfortunately, that is no way to live when it comes to optimal fitness. It is, in part, due to our lack of sleep that we now suffer the “diseases of civilization.” The less sleep we get, the more weight we gain. 24/7 people are tired and hungry people. And the stuff we eat when we are tired and stressed, so called “comfort food,” only adds insult to injury. Such food makes everything worse when it comes to the physiology of health and wellness.
Beyond drinking lots of clean, calorie-free water, the next best thing we can do to promote optimal wellness is to get lots of deep, restful sleep. It happens naturally once we get outside and away from electric lights. On occasion, I have enjoyed wilderness backpacking and canoeing. When the sun rises, we eat, clean up, break camp, and get moving. Over the course of the day, we take breaks when we are tired. There’s nothing better than resting comfortably, alone or with someone you love, in the warmth of the afternoon sun.
Long before the sun sets, we find a place to camp for the night. If possible, we catch, gather, clean, and prepare our food for dinner. After we eat, when the sun sets, we sit around the campfire telling stories, singing songs, rubbing shoulders, and enjoying each other’s company. By 9:00 at night, we’re usually in our tents, lying down, falling asleep.
Eight to nine hours of sleep in total darkness, synchronized with the setting and rising of the sun, is what the human genome expects. It’s what got us to where we are today and it’s what optimal fitness requires. Competitive athletes understand the importance of sleep to peak performance. Their bodies cannot recover, strengthen, and perform at consistently high levels with less than eight to nine hours of sleep per night, plus a nap in the afternoon. That is the rule, not the exception, when it comes to coaching the elite.
Whether or not we qualify as an elite athlete, however, we all have the same genetic requirements. Whether we want to play at the top of our game in the Tour de France or in front of a classroom, we need to pay attention to the quantity and rhythm of our sleep. The less sleep we get, the more health problems we have. The more light we see at night, the less sleep we get. It’s an integral connection that we cheat at great expense not only to health and wellness, but also to warmth and happiness. We are meant to sleep and to live in the rhythm of natural time.
That day is long past. Most people are lucky to get a full seven hours of sleep per night, and many boast of doing just fine on six, five, or even four. Afternoon naps have become a cause for embarrassment in many circles. When I was in kindergarten, I can remember lying down on the floor for naps. By the first grade, however, my teacher was reporting such activity to my parents as a cause for concern. Our work ethic does not endorse sleeping, whether at night or during the day, and we suffer the consequences as would any athlete who over trains. Injury and disability are sure to follow.
Next week we’ll look at how to promote quality sleep. For now, however, it’s enough to recognize the importance of making the time to sleep. In our 24/7 world, no one will make the time for us. If we don’t turn off the lights, the televisions, the computers, and all the other electrical devices that clamor for our attention by around 9:00 at night, we will not be synchronizing our body clocks with nature and we will not be promoting our fitness to optimal levels. It may seem like there’s too much to do, or too much to enjoy, to stop at 9:00 at night but if losing sleep is shortening our years of viability • as it certainly is • perhaps there’s too much to do, and too much to enjoy, not to stop at 9:00 at night.
There’s always another day, as long as we live to see the sunrise. I, for one, want to see as many sunrises as possible. So enjoy the night! Sleep well! Sweet dreams!
Coaching Inquiries: How much sleep do you average per night? Do you ever take the time to nap or sleep during the day? Would you like to get more sleep than you are getting right now? How could you begin to shift away from all things electrical after 9:00 at night? Who would you need to inform or recruit in your household in order to make that happen? What other steps would you need to take in order to make it so?
To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..
I have been loving your recent Provisions. They are written in such a logical way, with such substance! Each week I find myself anxiously looking forward to the next one. Keep up the great work!
I’m so impressed with your research and ability to synthesize all this information into a cogent model for wellness. You are an inspiration!
Wow, what great stuff. I hope your recent Provision, A Better Pattern, inspires all the readers of your forum to consider making changes to their current lifestyles. I know it inspires me! Who knew that our Paleolithic ancestors may have the secret to optimal health? I need to find some local, organic providers! Thanks!
Your recent Provisions are a treasure. They seem to make perfect sense. I do have some questions though. First, life expectancy for Paleolithic humans is pretty dismal (33 years). Yes, it declines after agriculture (to about 20 and 18) but rebounds to 28 in ancient Greece and holds steady until modern sewage systems in the 19th century almost doubles it (from 37 to 66). So what’s the measure of health that is preferred to life expectancy? (Ed. Note: Life expectancy for Paleolithic humans was shortened by infectious disease (microbes), complications with childbirth, and trauma. Otherwise, they lived as long or longer than modern humans, free from chronic diseases. That’s the measure of health we seek.)
Second, notwithstanding its currently touted medicinal qualities, I love and really appreciate your inclusion of chocolate in the Optimal Wellness Prototype. I would also add active yogurt and small amounts of cheese. (Ed. Note: The Prototype eliminates all dairy products since they are an invention of agriculture and a relatively recent addition to the human diet. Many cannot properly digest the sugars and proteins in dairy products. I indulge only on special occasions.)
Finally, given the evolutionary basis, one could also support beginning reproduction in adolescence. Isn’t this the prime time that our bodies are perfectly suited for such activity? Certainly, the social realities of today (such as earning potential, for one) argue against this, but suppose that younger grandparents (around 35) supported children (around 17) who had newborns. This seems much more in line with the basis for the diet. (Ed. Note: You are right as to the realities of our ancestral heritage • lots of childhood sexual experimentation and play were the norm. Since Paleolithic menarche did not commence until around the age of 17, however, early childhood pregnancies would not have been a common phenomenon.)
I thought you might find this news interesting, if not expected. In the past year, since starting to follow the Paleo diet, my total cholesterol went from 179 to 126, my LDL (bad) cholesterol went from 105 to 68, by HDL (good) cholesterol went from 55 to 50, my cholesterol / HDL ratio went from 3.25 to 2.52, and my triglycerides from 96 to 42. What an improvement! Thank you.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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