Habit Challenge #1: Sleep

Establishing Habits and the Value of Sleep

by Catherine King MSc. CSCS

New year’s resolutions are all well and good, proclaimed with the best of intentions, but when it comes to fitness challenges, my goal is to provide you with the tools and focus for lasting change. In life, health and fitness are about the long game, and we need to approach them as such. Imagine if we approached our careers the way we approach diet and exercise. Juice cleanses, burpee challenges and other chaotic approaches don’t result in desired outcomes over the long-term. Just as taking random courses, arbitrary jobs and long periods of time-off don’t serve to develop a successful career. We need a system, a process, and a plan. 

Changing our behaviours is difficult, which is why the process is important. Often, when January rolls around, we make resolutions: to lose weight, to exercise more, to quit smoking. We try to change everything all at once with an all-or-nothing mindset. This tendency for too much too soon sets us up for failure. We tell ourselves that we lack willpower. We tell ourselves we are a failure. This isn’t true! There is no failure, only learning experiences. Therefore, we need to approach behaviour change as not only a process, but as an experiment. What is working and what is not? 

It is important to remember that goals are desired outcomes, thus they are momentary changes. Goals are great for defining a direction, but it is the process by which we achieve these goals which matters most. What happens once you reach your goal? Do you return to old habits? Both successful and unsuccessful people can have the same goal, the difference is the process of getting there. Establishing healthy habits must come into play. 

The power of habits:

Our habits define us and help form our identity. Are you the type of person that puts their shopping cart away or do you leave it in the parking lot? Are you someone who makes their bed every morning or leaves it as is? Are you someone who is training for a half marathon or are you a runner?

Habits are automatic behaviours that require little thought. They can be beneficial or detrimental. They can move us closer to our goals and desired outcomes or they can move us further away. They are powerful, and harnessing that power allows us more efficiency, freedom, and time. Imagine what your morning would be like if you had to create a mind map each day to decide if you should shower, brush your teeth or grab a coffee. Using the power of habits allows us to achieve more and move closer to our desired identity. 

So how do we change our habits? When it comes to the process, we want to start small. We want to start easy. Mostly, we want to start with success.

Habit #1: Sleep

For the first healthy habit challenge, we are focusing on sleep. Why sleep? For starters, sleep is the foundation upon which physical activity and diet rest.

When it comes to Canadian adults:

… are not getting enough sleep.

The recommended hours of sleep per night is 7 to 9. 

Sleep is crucial to our ability to learn and to our memory. Sufficient sleep is critical in three key ways: before learning, to prepare the brain in order to lay down memory traces; after learning, to cement memories in neural architecture; and to associate, assimilate and integrate information. Sleep strengthens memories and builds associations, allowing you to find solutions to problems and to think creatively.

Several health risks are associated with insufficient sleep. It can impact our emotional health. Studies show a relationship between sleep disruption and depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and, tragically, suicide. 

Our ability to discern other people’s emotions and intentions is also impaired by a lack of sleep. In other words, emotional intelligence, our EQ, is impaired.

There is also an intimate relationship between immune health and sleep health. Essentially, the shorter your sleep cycle, the shorter your life. A study found that with fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night, individuals are almost three times more likely to become infected with the rhinovirus (common cold). With fewer than 5 hours of sleep per night, individuals are nearly 70% more likely to be infected with pneumonia. Interestingly, vaccines are less effective in individuals who do not achieve adequate sleep prior to receiving the vaccine. 

Additionally, insufficient sleep is associated with a doubling of the risk of certain cancers (lung, ovarian, thyroid, myeloma). 

A lack of sleep can also have a negative impact on our sex hormones. A man who gets just 4 to 5 hours of sleep per night will have the same testosterone levels as a man 10-years his senior. In other words, it ages you by a decade. For women, lack of sleep impairs reproductive health.  Under-slept women have a 20-30% reduction in follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH plays a role in ovulation and reproductive success. A lack of sleep disrupts menstrual cycles, and, sadly, women who are night shift workers experience a higher incidence of miscarriage.

If all of this is not scary enough, insufficient sleep also impacts our diet and physical activity. 

Lack of sleep erodes athletic performance and decreases peak performance strength (vertical jump, 1RM). It decreases the ability of your lungs to expire CO2 and inspire oxygen. Insufficient sleep will even impair your ability to sweat. Additionally, individuals who do not get enough sleep will experience a faster accumulation of lactic acid. Impaired sleep also increases the risk of injury. 

When it comes to dieting, one study found that in participants who slept fewer than 6 hours per night, 70% of their weight loss associated with dieting came from lean muscle mass instead of fat mass. When under-slept, your body becomes stingy and holds onto your fat stores and metabolizes protein. If that was not already a blow to our weight loss goal, we also lose our impulse control, therefore eating in more impulsive, unhealthy ways. Additionally, appetite regulation is impaired. Under-slept people eat more carbohydrates and sugars. They are more likely to choose pasta, pizza, and ice cream over leafy greens and a piece of fish. 

We could go on about blood sugar regulation and changes to gut microbiomes, but you get the idea. Adequate sleep is crucial to our health and wellbeing. Ignore those people that say, “you should be working when others are sleeping.” They’ve ignored the value of sleep.

If you skimmed the information above, here are some sleep statics:

The Change:

For behaviour change to take hold, make incremental steps to improve sleep duration and quality. To be successful, start small and with something that is easily accomplishable, then adjust the environment to make it simple to achieve. 

With behaviour change, we can perform a one time action that will provide lasting benefits, such as installing blackout drapes, buying a better mattress or programming our lights to dim one hour before bedtime. Alternatively, we can develop a daily habit, such as having a hot bath before bed or going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. 

If you are already sleeping the recommended 7 to 9 hours per night and feel rested and energized, fantastic! Keep doing what you are doing. However, if you need to make changes consider ONE of these options:

Considering the options above, is there one that would work for you? If not, ask if there is another option that would be a better fit? Would it have an impact on your sleep duration or quality? Is it easy for you to implement? On a scale of 0 to 10 (0 = not at all, and 10 = easy to accomplish) how confident are you with your choice? If your answer is 9-10, go for it! If you answered lower than 9, how can you make it easier? Or, is there another option that gives you more confidence? For example, if you selected meditation, but your confidence level is 7, make it easier. Start with one belly breath.

Change your environment to make your chosen habit easily accomplishable. If scrolling on your phone is interfering with sleep, banish the phone from the bedroom. 

Next, consider tracking your habits. Journals. Apps. Stickers on a calendar. Find a way to track success that works for you. Tracking gives you a visual cue, which helps you build consistency and provides a way to monitor your progress. The goal is for the new behaviour to become automatic, to become a habit. 

Lastly, don’t forget to celebrate your little achievements along the way. We change best by feeling good, by positive reinforcement. It might seem silly to say to yourself, “yay me!” when you dim the lights, but change is more likely to be lasting if we associate a positive emotion with it. Celebrate in a way that feels authentic to you

Your task this week:

  1. 1. Chose one habit to improve sleep duration or quality
  2. 2. Change your environment
  3. 3. Track consistency 
  4. 4. Celebrate your success!

If you have any questions regarding sleep and behaviour change, contact Catherine at catherine@westcoastconditioning.ca


Canada, P. (2019, September 06). Government of Canada. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/healthy-living/canadian-adults-getting-enough-sleep-infographic.html

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York, New York: Penguin Random House.

Fogg, B. J. (2020). Tiny habits: The small changes that change everything. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Walker, M. (2020). Matthew Walker Teaches the Science of Better Sleep. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://www.masterclass.com/classes/matthew-walker-teaches-the-science-of-better-sleep