Getting adequate sleep is crucial for performing well in everything we do, but too many of your clients will struggle to achieve it. PT and women’s health educator Clare Hozack shares some key practices for promoting better sleep health.
Fitness professionals often cite sleep as the third part of the equation, along with exercise and nutrition1, that clients need to focus on to optimise their health and wellbeing. For many people, however, getting some good shuteye is a lot harder than attending a BODYPUMP class or choosing the salmon poke bowl for lunch.
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that is defined by the inability to go to sleep, waking too early, or feeling unrested after sleep for at least three nights a week for at least three months. Most women need seven or more hours of sleep a night to feel rested2.
Women are 40% more likely to suffer insomnia than men3 – and many that don’t quite meet the criteria to be considered insomniacs still experience some level of sleep problem (up to 67%). As fitness professionals, we are in a strong position to help our female clients improve their sleep health, and in doing so help them perform better in all areas of their life.
At least part of the reason for the insomnia discrepancy between the genders is hormonal, some direct, some indirect. Research has shown that elevated insomnia risk begins with the onset of menstruation at puberty4. Other research has shown that the fall in hormones leading up to menstruation causes about 90% of women to experience mood or physical changes, including sleep problems5.
Pregnancy and menopause also carry their own unique challenges for sleep; some hormonal, some lifestyle, and some as a consequence of another issue (such as depression, hot flushes, or the physical challenges of sleeping when pregnant)6.
Other barriers to sleep are different for women than men:
So, that’s the bad news, and the reason why sleep should now be a priority with your female clients in the year ahead. The good news is, there is plenty you can do to help them.
To develop a healthy sleep cycle, it’s very beneficial to go to bed around the same time and wake around the same time every day – even at weekends! This isn’t always possible, and you shouldn’t let it dictate your social life, but if you can get as close to regular sleeping hours as often as possible, it will go a long way to establishing a solid sleep pattern.
Hand-in-hand with your new sleep schedule is a sleep ritual. And no, spending four hours bingeing the latest Netflix series isn’t going to cut it!
This advice isn’t just for your clients though – it’s just as valuable for you. As a trainer, you may well work until 8pm or later, and by the time you get home you’ll be wired with endorphins and your brain will be going at a million miles an hour.
For mums, evenings are often the only time they get on their own, and they will often fill it with chores. Sadly, the house elves won’t be attending to those, so they can’t always be avoided. However, in addition to domestic necessities, at least some time should be carved out to relax and prepare the brain for rest.
What a sleep ritual should NOT include:
A sleep ritual should include habits that become ingrained; practised signals that prepare your body for sleep. Some of this ritual needs to be calming and soothing.
What a sleep ritual can include:
You may use alcohol and caffeine to relax or stimulate you, but you should do so with care9. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that causes brain activity to slow down. It has sedative effects that can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness10, but the consumption of alcohol – especially in excess – has been linked to poor sleep quality and duration, because it suppresses REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, sometimes called ‘the good sleep’. Generally, you need at least two hours REM sleep in a 24-hour period for your sleep to be considered adequate.
When using subjective measures, women report more sleep problems than men, including disrupted and insufficient sleep, poor sleep quality, difficulty falling asleep, frequent night awakenings, and time awake during the night11,12. Considering these factors, and women’s 40% greater risk of insomnia13, limiting or avoiding alcohol in the evening makes sense for women if sleep is a problem.
If you can train yourself to swap out your evening glass of wine for a soothing herbal tea and dark chocolate, your brain will thank you for it.
Caffeine is not just found in coffee, it’s also present in most energy drinks as well as black and green tea. Caffeine promotes alertness by inhibiting chemicals in the brain that promote sleep14. It is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream and reaches peak levels within 30-70 minutes. Its effects can last for three to seven hours, but it may take up to 24 hours to be fully eliminated. You may have become dependent on caffeine if taken regularly, so rather than go cold turkey, gradually cutting down on it may help reduce withdrawal-induced headaches, anxiety and other symptoms.
Moderate single doses of caffeine (up to 200mg), and a daily intake of less than 400mg, do not seem to have negative health effects in healthy adults. This translates to around five cups of regular strength black tea or two cups of brewed coffee (not too strong) per day, ideally consumed in the first half of the day and not within seven hours of bedtime.
If you can, try to make these changes to your alcohol and caffeine consumption (if applicable) and see if it affects your sleep quality. Alternatively, if elimination isn’t feasible, try cutting down what you consume, dropping from two glasses of wine a night to one glass, for example.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the health detriments of a desynchronised circadian rhythm (i.e. not sleeping when it’s dark), including premature ageing, increased risk of breast and other cancers, increased risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome, and even the risk of poor dental hygiene and cavities15.
Here’s how to use light to your advantage:
Now we’re really back in our wheelhouse. Exercise has been shown to improve total sleep time, sleep efficiency, and wake after sleep onset after 12 weeks of training19. However, there is conflicting research regarding what type of exercise is best20, so the information that follows is informed by my personal experience of training women for over 20 years and educating personal trainers for more than a decade.
If you don’t have great sleep regularly, here are my top tips for using exercise to improve it:
Sleep is not a luxury, it is critical. Ask your clients – particularly your female ones – if they sleep well. I guarantee you that many will laugh at the mere suggestion. For these clients, make practicing good sleep hygiene a priority by encouraging them to adopt some or all of the practices above. When they start enjoying the elusive feeling of waking up refreshed and well rested, they will thank you for it.
Disclaimer: Where Certificate III in Fitness, Cert III/cert 3, or Fitness Coach is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Fitness, Cert IV/Cert 4, or Personal Trainer is mentioned, it refers to SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Program™ is mentioned, it refers to Fitness Essentials and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Plus+ Program™ is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Massage or Cert IV/Cert 4 is mentioned, it refers to HLT42015 Certificate IV in Massage Therapy. Where Diploma of Remedial Massage is mentioned, it refers to HLT52015 Diploma of Remedial Massage.