Maybe you try to get the recommended 7–9 hours of sleep every night, but you end up making that more of an average — as in, clocking in five hours nightly most of the week, then sleeping for 10–11 hours on weekends. That works to make sure you get enough rest, right?
Although that’s a very common strategy, your body doesn’t work like a savings account where you can just bank some sleep hours and then make numerous withdrawals and a few big deposits. Sooner or later, that leaves you overdrawn.
But let’s say you actually do get 8 hours of sleep regularly. You just happen to vary widely in terms of when that block of time actually lands. Maybe you go to bed at 9 p.m. some nights and 2 a.m. other times and wake up 8 hours later. Unfortunately, new research suggests that doesn’t work very well either.
Researchers found that even when people get the proper quantity of sleep, the variability of their bedtime and wakeup schedules can put them at higher risk for obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, high blood sugar and other metabolic disorders. In fact, for every hour of variability from day to day, the chances of experiencing a metabolic problem go up 27%.
GET IN THE HABIT
For some people, like shift workers, it’s impossible to change sleep schedule variations. But for many others, decreasing variability is just a matter of getting into a solid habit, says Dr. Mia Finkelston, a family practice physician.
“We can handle some changes to our usual routine but not as much as you might think,” she says. “When you go to bed only when you’re tired, you’re introducing too much unpredictability into your sleep schedule. And that can catch up with you.”
The longer daytime hours can make it difficult to stay with a sleep pattern — you might feel like a resentful kid if you have to go to bed while it’s still light out, for example — so it’s helpful to ease into a new schedule gradually and then stick with it.
“Your body and mind crave predictability when it comes to sleep, and being consistent will actually help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep, because your mind is prepped for that bedtime routine,” Finkelston says.
RISE AND SHINE
In addition to establishing a regular bedtime, it’s also crucial to have a consistent wake up time, and that means the weekends, too. While it’s super tempting to lounge in bed on a rainy Sunday, it’s much better to get up at your usual weekday time and then take a nap later, according to Dr. W. Christopher Winter, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and author of “The Sleep Solution.”
That doesn’t mean you can never sleep in again, he adds. An occasional morning of drowsing is no big deal, as long as you get back on track for the next night and morning.
If it’s tough getting out of bed without snoozing a zillion times, then it pays to work on habits that help you feel refreshed when you do get up. For example, Winter suggests exercising in the morning, which can help set your body clock more efficiently.
He also recommends getting some natural light as soon as possible after waking. In a study published in Sleep Health, 109 office workers wore light-measuring devices to gauge their exposure to different types of light throughout the day. They also logged their sleep and wake times and reported on their moods and quality of sleep.
Those who had the most exposure to sunlight or bright indoor lights during the morning hours were more likely to sleep better at night, as well as feel less stressed overall.
BE CONSISTENT, GET RESULTS
If you’re trying to lose weight and are feeling frustrated because you’re doing everything right, or you feel stuck on a plateau, it’s possible creating a sleep schedule could be the catalyst you need.
Not only does a consistent sleep schedule help your sleep quality, but it can be helpful for keeping hormones like cortisol and melatonin well regulated — and that can reduce your chances of storing belly fat.
It takes time and motivation to change something as well established as a sleep schedule, but it’s likely your body will thank you for the effort.