Jake Harcoff of AIM Athletic: “Shut it off “

Shut it off –At least an hour or two before bed shut off all screens. I realize I said these were easy steps implement and you might be thinking “yeah right” to this one but believe me. The emails can wait, the Netflix series will still be there tomorrow, and any late night cramming you […]

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Shut it off –At least an hour or two before bed shut off all screens. I realize I said these were easy steps implement and you might be thinking “yeah right” to this one but believe me. The emails can wait, the Netflix series will still be there tomorrow, and any late night cramming you do probably won’t cement itself in your long-term memory anyways. Take this time to read (a physical book), or to connect with a loved one. Write, draw, talk, I don’t know just power off the screens!

Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?

In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.

As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Jake Harcoff Msc., CSCS.

Jake Harcoff is the owner, and head coach of AIM Athletic in Langley British Columbia Canada. Over the past decade in the fitness industry, Jake has helped people from all walks of life, from general population to professional athletes, achieve their fitness and health goals. Jake has an extensive educational background including a master’s degree in strength and conditioning, as well as certifications as Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator, registered kinesiologist, and Certified Sports Nutritionist. When it comes to training, Jake believes that the fundamental components of a successful training program are to do no harm, deliver a genuine workout, and create healthy habits surrounding health and fitness.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?

Certainly, I got into fitness in my early teens to improve my performance as an ice-hockey player. I had decent skill; however, it became evident as I climbed the ranks that I would have to outwork and out train my opponents if I wanted to be successful, rather than relying on my skills alone. Eventually, I began to enjoy the training aspect of hockey more than playing the game itself and jumped at any opportunity I could to help my strength coach train his other athletes. When my trainer eventually left the industry to pursue other passions, I took over training many of the guys I had been helping him with. After shifting my focus from hockey to fitness, I attacked becoming a better coach with the same ferocity that I approached the game with, consuming as much knowledge and experience as possible. I did not just teach health and fitness, I lived it. Eventually I decided to put my career on hold and complete my master’s degree in 2018 which took me to the UK and Middlesex University. After graduating with distinction, I returned home, and with the support of a couple former clients who believed in me, opened my own training facility, AIM Athletic, last year. With the pandemic in mind, things are just getting started for AIM, but I genuinely think that we have something special here and cannot wait to see what the future holds for myself and for my gym.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?

I talked a little bit about it in my backstory, but I remember being thirteen years old, trying out for the local rep hockey team. While I had a lot of natural talent as a hockey player, as a child I struggled with obesity and being generally out of shape. I remember always being last in any sort of running activity, and even used to fake asthma attacks to get out of some hard dryland workouts. This season in particular, the coach in charge of the team seemed to place a special emphasis on fitness and saw that I struggled to keep up off the ice, even though skating was never a problem for me. The coach decided to cut me just before the season began, and I immediately hired a trainer to help me get in shape. Initially I hated to workout, but I began to love it as I saw changes in my body. I came back the next year and made the top team in my area, the rest is history, I fell in love with fitness.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

As a strength coach working with amateur to professional athletes, I am always looking for ways to help them optimize their game and give them any possible, legal, edge. I looked into what the best training methods, the best diet and nutritional advice, and best equipment were, but all this studying led me to realize one aspect of training that was often overlooked. It became clear that an athlete’s success was not just dictated by their capacity to perform, but in some cases more so by their ability to recover. I began shifting my research to investigating the best recovery techniques, only to find that sleep was usually the thing that most athletes needed improvement at. The importance of sleep didn’t just end there, what I found was that sleep was also linked to almost all aspects of health and fitness. Most of my athletes are teens playing at the amateur and college level, so naturally, sleep is likely to take a back seat to Netflix, videogames, homework, and their social lives. My biggest challenge is to relate to my athletes and help them see what kind of damage they are doing to their health and their ability to perform by not taking their sleep seriously. Fortunately, being a former athlete myself, building buy-in with my athletes has always been a strength of mine. I feel like I have the unique ability to understand what my client’s needs, and desires are, because I lived the athlete life myself. Many of these guys have so much pressure on them with school, sports, and the challenges of being young adults, that helping them see how proper sleep hygiene can impact all these areas is enough to get them to turn off the electronics right before bed and give them an edge in their recovery.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

A book that has made a significant impact on my life is “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. This book came to me at one of the darkest times in my life after losing a parent and shortly after that a very ugly break up. I felt completely lost in life, I felt small and worthless. This book gave me a recipe to rebuilding myself into the man I’ve always wanted to be. Rather than focusing on the small insignificant things in life, I started to focus on being impeccable with my word, not taking things personally, learning things for myself rather than making assumptions, and ALWAYS doing my best. I even made the four agreements into a background for my phone, so I saw them every time I looked at it. I genuinely think if more people read this book, the world would be a better place.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I love the fact that men’s mental health is beginning to get the care and attention in the schools, workplaces, and the media that it deserves, and I think the current pandemic we are all facing has highlighted it even more. I know from going through depression myself as not only a man, but also a personal trainer, someone who many of my clients see as a sounding board for their own problems, being vulnerable is extremely challenging. In my profession, you never want to be seen as weak, and I do not just mean in the weight room. Therefore, I absolutely love the quote “sometimes even sheep dogs, need sheep dogs” made by Fergus Connelly in his TedTalk about being vulnerable. While I am not a soldier, or a protector of people in the common sense, like the sheepdogs Fergus speaks of in his TedTalk, I think this quote can relate to anyone. Its okay to need help even if you are a strong person mental or physically, you are still human.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?

Most experts suggest adults should aim for between seven and ten hours of sleep every night, however it is important to note that not all sleep is created equally. Sleep quality is equally or more important than total hours spent sleeping. Similarly, research has shown that age related sleep requirements is less about total hours of sleep, but when that sleep occurs. The ideal amount of sleep is more closely related to circadian cycles of the body, and its reactions to the day/night cycles of the earth. In winter months, where there is less sunlight, toggling towards a higher amount of sleep hours seems to be beneficial, compared to summer months and longer days, when the body can get away with a little less sleep. With that in mind, younger individuals have been shown to do better when going to sleep later, and waking up later, than middle-aged and elderly individuals. There are even some sleep experts who suggest school schedules should shift forwards, allowing kids to sleep in longer in the morning. While the reason for this is still unclear, some experts have proposed that this is an evolutionary trait, where adults rose from sleep earlier than children for an opportunity to prep for the day. Furthermore, going to sleep after the adults, gave the younger individuals a brief window of independence and opportunity to develop certain skills on their own.

Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10PM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?

Yes, as mentioned previously, the amount of sleep hours one has each night is only part of the sleep equation. In fact, it is safe to say that sleep quantity may even be less important than sleep quality and sleep timing. What must be considered to answer this question is that sleep is dictated by our circadian rhythms. These rhythms dictate process in the body like certain hormone productions that help your body fall asleep, and body temperature regulation that allows to achieve deeper, and higher levels of quality sleep once you are there. For example, deep sleep is highly contingent on the body achieving and maintaining a lower core temperature. On a typical 24-hour circadian cycle, body temperature has been shown to be at highest point between 4pm and 8pm, after which it begins to steadily drop until it bottoms out between 10 and 11 pm. In the case of this hypothetical scenario, sleeping from 10pm to 4am would be the better option since more time would be spent in deep sleep. Deep sleep is imperative to human recovery and growth, so maximizing the time spent there is key to a goodnight sleep, and proper rest.

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?

This is a great question and there are many ways in which a goodnight sleep will improve the quality of one’s life so it will be tough to include all of them here. The benefits of improving your sleep will include everything from a healthier brain to an overall improvement in health, and even improvements in the way you look.

First, sleep will improve your brain power, specifically your ability to remember and learn things, by allowing the hippocampus to transfer new and incoming information from your short-term memory and file it away into your long-term memory, specifically during early stage NREM (non-rapid eye movement sleep). To me it is no coincidence that as we get older and we start to stay up later, whether it is to work or watch tv, that we come to realize our memories seem to be getting worse. Not to mention the age-old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” which I have seen some experts attribute this to a lack of sleep as we get older. Therefor as our hypothetical adult in question sleeps more, they will start to forget less phone numbers, and even get better at skills they might be trying to learn like music instruments or mastering their golf swing.

Another benefit of improved sleep to our hypothetical adult will come in the form of improved health, more specifically an improved immune system. The body will often use sleep as means to ramp up its natural defenses to fend off incoming viruses within the body. Is it any wonder that most doctors tell us to “get some rest” when dealing with a cold or flu? Some research I have read recently has found that those who sleep seven to nine hours every night, are able to muster up nearly twice the immune response to infection that their sleep lacking counterparts do. This is even more important now during the current COVID-19 pandemic. More good sleep and rest means less risk of getting sick, period.

Finally, I think the benefit that our 35-year-old friend will be most concerned about is how quality sleep will result in achieving a better body. There has been a lot of research conducted recently on the impact that a lack of sleep has on your eating habits and what has been shown countless times is that the less you sleep, the more calories you are likely to consume. It does not stop there; in fact, a lack of sleep can even impair your body’s ability to manage blood sugar levels and increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In my practice, I preach to my clients that exercise and diet alone will not be enough to help them achieve their weight loss goals, they need to also prioritize their sleep if they want to be successful. Long story long, improving your sleeps will also make you more attractive, as well as healthier.

Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?

Bottom line, yes! One of my favorite descriptions of the benefits of sleep comes from Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” which I will paraphrase here;” if there was such a thing as a revolutionary treatment that makes us smarter, healthier, look better, and live longer, would you be interested in it?” Well, that revolutionary treatment exists, and its sleep.

The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?

I think some of the major blockages preventing us from putting proper sleep into practice is first and foremost, the misunderstanding that many people have about their ability to get by in life while lacking sleep. Far too many of the clients I work with boast about their ability to get by on four, or sometimes even less, hours of sleep each night. Often these people will be able to fool themselves using some, or even all the readily available stimulants such as caffeine or other pharmaceuticals, and don’t realize that they are really only running at a fraction of their potential capabilities. Our goal in life should not be just to get by, but to thrive. Secondly, I believe that this idea is perpetuated by our entrepreneurial, capitalistic society. Wealthy celebrities like 50 Cent make statements like “I don’t sleep, because I might miss an opportunity to make a dream become a reality,” and whether he means it or not, people who are trying to get ahead in life take it as gospel and spend their nights trying to figure out ways to get ahead, rather than sleep. Finally, while along the same lines as the first two hurdles I have mentioned, I think that people tend to make themselves too busy. Too many people cram and jam their schedules with sometimes meaningless tasks that might not even be necessary in the first place. These individuals will say tings like “there just isn’t enough hours in the day,” and usually sleep takes a back seat to getting these tasks completed. I think for these people the most important thing to do is, to take a step back and really investigate each of these tasks and figure out how many of them are really serving them. Rather than learning to be more productive, what they need to do is learn to be better gardeners, with the ability to prune away the excess jobs and responsibilities that do not move the needle in their lives. This skill will inevitably allow them to devote more effort into improving things that will serve us like a better sleep and managing their health rather than their calendar.

Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?

Yes, and I think that technology is playing a major role in the decline of quality sleep that many of us are facing today. This will not come as a surprise to anyone, but we are more plugged in and logged on than ever before. From phones, to laptops, to tv’s, and iPads, we have more screens than rooms in many of our houses and they are all integrated and linked with all sorts of consumable media. I don’t quite know the number, but there is more content currently on Netflix than one person will ever be able to watch in their entire lifetime. Too many people are glued to these devices, whether its for work or for pleasure, and then right up until they try going to sleep. What many people don’t know is that these devices, from the way their lit, to the programs they run, are designed to stimulate us through our eyes as well as other senses. The success of many of these devices, and the companies that produce them, revolves around us staying awake and consuming more content, rather than getting the rest we need. It will take a concerted effort and much more education to help the masses understand how these gadgets are not only affecting our sleep, but also our overall health.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.

I can think of more than five tips but here are some of the ones that I practice, that are both easy to do and greatly beneficial to a good sleep.

  1. Shut it off –At least an hour or two before bed shut off all screens. I realize I said these were easy steps implement and you might be thinking “yeah right” to this one but believe me. The emails can wait, the Netflix series will still be there tomorrow, and any late night cramming you do probably won’t cement itself in your long-term memory anyways. Take this time to read (a physical book), or to connect with a loved one. Write, draw, talk, I don’t know just power off the screens!
  2. Cool off — Think back to when I talked about the impact of temperature regulation on the body’s ability to achieve deep sleep. You can help your body to do this by lowering the ambient temperature in your bedroom, lightening up on the covers, or even having a hot bath or shower just before you plan on going to sleep.
  3. Black it out — Along the same lines as shutting off screens before bed, any sort of light that is in your room will have a similar impact on your ability to sleep, EVEN with your eyes closed or covered. This is because like your eyes, your skin is also a photoreceptor. I suggest making your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary and making it pitch black when its time to sleep. This means covering up any sort of lights that can’t be turned off and installing blackout blinds in your windows. I can’t begin to say how helpful this has been for me.
  4. Get outside during the day — Sleep cycles are dictated not only by the body’s internal circadian rhythms but also by day and light cycles. Since the skin and eyes contain photo receptors its imperative to our sleep that we get outside and allow the sun to reach these photo receptors in question. This way, when its nighttime the body realizes that its time to wind down and go to sleep.
  5. Put the cookie down! — Not only is this my favorite Arnold quote, its also one of my favorite sleep tips. Let the body focus on getting ready for sleep and not on digesting food. On top of that everything you eat will have a thermogenic effect on the body, intuitively, I see this as counterproductive to lower core body temperature before getting into bed. Make a habit of not eating anything at least a couple hours before bed. Not only will you sleep better, but you might also lose a few pounds while you’re at it.

What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?

I have read that it is a good habit to treat your bed like it only serves two purposes — sleep and sex. If you wake up and cannot get back to sleep maybe it’s worth bugging your partner (if you have one) to see if you can make the sleep interruption worthwhile. If that is not an option, I suggest trying some deep breathing techniques, like box breathing, where you count 3–4 seconds on the inhale, pause 3–4 seconds, then follow that up with a 3–4 second exhale, and then a final 3–4 second pause before repeating. If that doesn’t help you settle back down and fall asleep, it might be in your best interest to get up and try something like reading until you feel tired again. Just remember that screens and bright lights will likely stimulate your brain rather than wind it back down.

What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?

Short naps lasting twenty to thirty minutes can be a great idea when feeling tired. Although it should be noted that naps are not a replacement or means for catching up on sleep from the night before. Research has consistently shown that trying catch up on a night of no sleep, with a night, or day of increased sleep is not typically effective, since its usually deep sleep the body craves. If you do plan on taking a nap, try to avoid taking them any later than 5pm, or in the final few hours before going to sleep.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

The question doesn’t really specify if the person has to be alive, so honestly if I could choose anyone to have a private breakfast or lunch with it would be my late father who I lost a couple years back. Alternatively, if I had to choose a living person, I think, more than anything else I would want to be entertained. In this case, I’d probably have to choose one of my favorite actors who’s brought so much laughter and joy to my life with all of his work — Will Forte. Maybe this answer is a little surprising, but it has been over a decade since I watched the MacGruber movie and to this day I still think it’s the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, I even still quote it almost daily with my friends. I think that it’s a crime that his show “The Last Man on Earth” ended on such a cliff hanger. With questions such as these, I think that I might be hesitant to ever follow through with a potential meeting, because as the saying goes “never meet your idols,” however Will is always such a loveable character, regardless of the role he’s in, so I can’t see how he would disappoint.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

For more information about AIM Athletic, or what I do at my training facility, they can check out my website www.aimathletic.com, or find me on Instagram either @aim_athletic, or my personal account @jake_aim.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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