WELLNESS
12/31/2015 09:13 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2016

Make Sleep a Priority This New Year

Peathegee Inc via Getty Images

As we usher in the new year and set goals for the coming year, it's important to make sleep a priority.

Getting enough sleep and ensuring good quality sleep is a key to maintaining good physical and mental health. So before committing to getting up early for the gym each day, or starting your next diet, make sure sleep figures in your plans for the coming year. This time of the year, many of us are making new year's resolutions. What do we plan to give up that we indulged in too often throughout the year? What are we going to take up that we wished we had made time for this year? As we make these plans, it's important to make sleep a priority rather than something that can be traded off, to make space in our schedule for other activities.

Not getting enough sleep has risks

Recommendations from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine are that adults of working age should get at least seven hours sleep each night. These recommendations are based on research showing that people who average less than seven hours sleep per night are at increased risk of problems, such as high blood pressure, depression and anxiety. This occurs even in people who don't feel tired during the day.

It's important to understand the difference between not getting enough sleep from being too busy or not allowing enough time for sleep, and those who allow enough time, but just can't get to sleep or stay asleep despite their best efforts. For people with insomnia, that is, difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, the risks of not getting enough sleep only appear to occur if they average less than five hours sleep per night.

Sleep quality is also important

Getting good quality sleep is just as important as getting enough sleep. Too often, I'm seeing people in my practice who haven't been feeling well for years, and have been suffering from a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or other medical disorders that can impact on sleep that haven't been diagnosed. They've been following a healthy lifestyle and getting enough sleep, but just not been feeling right. If this is you, see your health professional so that they can look for medical disorders and consider getting an opinion from a sleep specialist about whether you may have a sleep disorder.

About to set your alarm to get up early to go to the gym? Think again.

Both sleep and exercise are important for maintaining physical and mental health. However, often people can prioritise one over the other and lead to situations where they are sacrificing sleep for exercise. What is the right balance and how do we make sure that we do not overly focus on one of these to the detriment of the other and impact on our health and wellbeing?

Anna Almendrala wrote a great post in The Huffington Post discussing current research on sleep vs exercise. I agree with her summary of the current state of the literature. Surprisingly, there is little data to guide us. There are certainly lots of individual studies on sleep or exercise showing the benefits for health with either more sleep or more exercise and detriments to health when we miss out on either sleep or exercise. However, there is not good data showing what happens when we trade one off for the other. Like all things it makes sense to keep things in balance. Ensuring reasonable amounts of sleep as well as reasonable amounts of physical activity rather than overly prioritising either of these.

From a sleep point of view, some exercise is good, more is not necessarily better and morning exercise is preferable to evening exercise. So if the only time you have to exercise is in the evening, go for it. Whilst evening exercise can lead to activation of the sympathetic nervous system making it hard to switch off or wind down, it's still better than not exercising at all.

So what should my sleep goals for the new year be?

  1. Make sleep a priority - The key to sleeping well is to make sleep a priority, rather than trading off sleep to do more of other things, be that exercise, diet, personal development or work.
  2. Ensure adequate opportunity for sleep - Aim for at least 7 hours sleep per night. This means allowing around 8 hours in bed, with some time for winding down before getting in to bed.
  3. Do something about poor quality sleep - If you feel that you're not sleeping well, or still feeling tired despite getting at least 7 hours sleep per night, or not able to sleep, do something about it. Talk to your health professional and consider seeing a sleep specialist.
  4. See sleep as only one part of health and wellness - To feel our best we need to have balance and not be overly focussed on only one aspect of health. To often I see people who are very focussed on one aspect of health such as exercise or nutrition or sleep, but not paying enough attention to other areas.

The Sleep Wellness Quiz has been developed to help prioritise your goals to improve your sleep and health. Take the quiz and use the results to help set your sleep goals for the new year. Let us know how you go.

This post originally appeared on the online sleep resource, SleepHub. You can follow David on Facebook and Twitter.