By Ashley Lauretta
You’ve heard of those people who get out of bed with a pep in their step — no caffeine necessary — and tackle the day head-on. They even get in a workout when most of us are still tucked snuggly in our beds, then they eat a well-balanced breakfast and arrive at the office early and get a head start on their to-do list.
They aren’t unicorns; these people are real. You can become one of them. First, you need to get enough sleep — at the right time.
Both when and how much you sleep matters equally. Being in tune with your body and knowing when to cut out sleep deterrents, such as blue light and caffeine, goes a long way in assisting your circadian rhythm.
As sleep science has become more sophisticated we are learning that the quality and the length are both critical to optimizing our sleep,” explains Wayne Andersen, co-founder and medical director of Take Shape for Life. “In general, an adult should have 7–9 hours of high-quality sleep per night.”
Andersen says the optimum time to go to sleep is between 8 p.m. and midnight, but understandably, our schedules don’t allow many of us to lay down quite that early. Should you want to adjust your sleep habits, do so in small increments by going to sleep 10–15 minutes earlier each night. Also, don’t stray from that schedule on the weekends, at least as you are adjusting your sleep cycle.
Jeff Knight, an exercise physiologist for Under Armour Connected Fitness, reiterates this point. Even on the days that you don’t work out in the morning, he recommends to maintain that same sleep schedule and not stray from that routine. “We learned that when people go to bed on time (when they meet their bedtime goal), their probability of working out the next morning goes up by an average of 20%,” he notes. Tools like the UA Record app are helpful because you’ll get reminders of when to get to bed and information on how to honor your sleep routine.
“Regardless of when you chose to sleep, it should be consistent,” adds Pete Bils, vice president of sleep science and research for Sleep Number. “Recent studies have shown that those who deviated an hour or more on their ‘days off’ have higher triglycerides, lower ‘good’ cholesterol, larger waists and have trouble with blood sugar/insulin management. Coined ‘social jetlag’, these inconsistent sleep routines create similar issues as traveling through several time zones, throwing our body’s rhythms off.”
A great way to learn your body’s rhythm is to go to bed a few nights at the same time and see what time your body wakes up without an alarm. From there, you can use Andersen’s incremental method to adjust the time you go to sleep.
It turns out that there are a few differences between early birds and night owls, however, your sleep choices can have an effect on which you ultimately are.
“Studies show that the brains of early risers are structurally different, with an increased white matter in their brain as compared to late risers and intermediates [those in-between the two],” Andersen notes. “Although, to be fair, night owls are usually more productive, have more stamina during the day and have greater reasoning and analytical abilities.”
Andersen also references the ‘social jetlag’ that Bils mentions, which often involves eating more, fatigue and being more prone to alcohol intake. Night owls aren’t doomed to be late to rise forever, however, and can adjust their schedule regardless of any genes that may be at play.
So if you want to become an early morning exerciser, consistency is key.
“As a marathoner, I’ve learned that my best long, difficult workouts are most effective in the morning, so I gradually shifted them in that direction,” divulges Bils. “I did this for a practical reason, too. Many people lose control of their day as it unwinds. Having morning workouts guarantees they will happen.”
Ultimately the key to waking up earlier, is to go to sleep sooner. “We know that going to bed earlier actually results in about 35 minutes of extra sleep. You’ve been going to bed at 11 p.m. and waking up at 6 a.m., getting 7 hours of sleep, but, now you want to do a 6:30 a.m. boot camp. Aim to move your bedtime habit to 10 p.m. and you’ll likely sleep until 5:35 a.m., resulting in around 7:35 hours of sleep, Knight adds. “More sleep, more recovery, more gains and more goal achieved.”
If you’re getting adequate sleep, morning workouts are fantastic. But don’t cut short your sleep to squeeze in a morning workout — that’s misses the point. You don’t have to skip your workout; Andersen recommends modifying the duration and intensity of your workout to avoid injury or excessive fatigue on mornings when you’re crunched for time.
Exercising in the morning will help and has so many other benefits on our overall health and well-being. Together these things help our productivity and set us up for cognitive, emotional and relational coherence throughout the whole day.”
Again, none of this is possible without that solid night of sleep. Adjusting gradually and staying consistent is what will help get you there.
This post originally appeared on MyFitnessPal.com.