February 17, 2020. Like all Monday Ways, today’s is about physical fitness and, finally, exercise.
But this isn’t just any Monday. So let’s observe Presidents Day by considering Presidential fitness. Specifically, the health benefits of a good night’s sleep. Like achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. And thinking clearly: being able to distinguish between the important and the unimportant, between facts and “noise”. Let’s look at the research.
Sleep more, tweet less
The latest research concludes that we sleep in order to forget. Really. To forget all the unimportant stuff we learn during the day. While you’re awake, you constantly take in new information; your brain learns all this stuff by growing new connections between neurons. It adds to your neural network – it stores your new data and remembers how to connect to it in the future.
Very recent research shows that while you sleep, your brain selectively forgets the unimportant stuff. Kinda like cleaning out your email. Or pruning your garden. Your brain actually prunes some of the synaptic connections it grew earlier in the day. So what might happen if a sleep-deprived brain can’t prune those synapses? Consider this memory experiment with mice.
The mice go into a little room where they get an electric shock if they walk on one area of the floor. Yup, they learned not to go there pretty quickly. Then, before they go to sleep later that night, some of the mice get a drug that prevents neurons from pruning new synapses. The other mice just go to sleep.
The next day, all the mice go back in the room with the electrified floor. They’re all frozen with fear; none approach the shocking area. Then they all go into a different but similar new room. The mice that didn’t get the drug act like mice in a new room; they run around and sniff everywhere to learn all about the new room, without avoiding any part of the floor. But the mice who got the anti-pruning drug – they were frozen with fear in this room, too. Unlike the drug-free mice that remembered the details of the danger but forgot about the rest of the experience, they couldn’t distinguish between the one place with actual danger and a different new place with no danger.
Now you could shrug this off and say, hey, this is an experiment with mice, not humans. Or you could ask, are we mice or are we men?
Or you could just try to sleep the whole thing off.
Put them together and what do you get? The exercise double-whammy. Exercise burns calories in real-time. And reduces your caloric intake later by contributing to a good night’s sleep. Way Better and Cheaper than sleep medication.
How does this work?
The study in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation, showed that a sleep-deprived (5-6 hours/night) group consumed 549 calories/day more than the control group. 549! That’s like a whole extra meal. Even though fewer hours were given to sleep, additional calories were not burned during waking hours. The body’s response to less sleep is to balance it with more eating. Even if you just sit on your butt and watch the news.
Many studies have shown that aerobic exercise increases the quality and quantity of sleep. This research at Northwestern University examined “the effect of aerobic exercise on middle-aged and older adults with a diagnosis of insomnia … The aerobic exercise trial resulted in the most dramatic improvement in patients’ reported quality of sleep, including sleep duration, compared to any other non-pharmacological intervention.”
What was the exercise that produced dramatic results in 16 weeks? 30 minutes of walking 4 times per week. Let’s do the math: these four walks burn a total of about 600 calories per week. Way more important: improved sleep may reduce your calorie consumption by nearly the same amount every day.
When I was 12, President Kennedy announced his Youth Physical Fitness Program. That summer, my day camp had a competition to see if we could meet its exercise goals. I remember the target for sit-ups (50) – because I won that contest. I have no idea what possessed me to do this, but I did 600 non-stop. I was proud, but mostly I was intensely sore for three or four days.
“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.”
-John F. Kennedy
“I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”
“You know I can’t sleep, I can’t stop my brain
You know it’s three weeks, I’m going insane”
-Lennon & McCartney
“Man should forget his anger before he lies down to sleep.”
“I am accustomed to sleep and in my dreams to imagine the same things that lunatics imagine when awake.”
“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”