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Sleep Vs. Exercise: Which is More Important?

Posted Nov 02 2009 10:01pm

Sleep is great. Not only does it feel awesome but it helps you burn fat better, strengthens your immune system, makes you smarter, lessens depression and helps avoid unfortunate decision making. (I may or may not have eaten about 20 mini candy bars pilfered from my childrens' Halloween stashes after a recent sleepless night, ahem). Exercise is also fantastic. It ups your metabolism, gives you greater energy, helps your mood, and ameliorates the stress incurred from any unfortunate decisions you have recently made. (The Almond Joys might have been really really good. Not that I'm admitting anything - that's between me and the calorie counter on the treadmill.) A lack of either sleep or exercise brings down a host of evils upon your head that I won't detail as we all know it is magazines' jobs to scare us silly but suffice it to say it all comes back to You Could Die. Consequently, one of the questions you hear the most bandied about in fitness circles - and one I think is answered the worst - is about how to balance sleeping and exercise in a time-crunched world.

Generally the person asking the question says something along the lines of, "I have one hour in the morning during which I can either sleep or workout. I can't do both. Which is a better health investment for my time?"

The advice-giver invariably answers, "You have to do both."

Over the sound of foreheads smacking desks, the asker mutters, "I just told you I can't do both."

Advice giver: "You must make time for both."

Asker: "Ideally, yes. But my life is not ideal, there are only 24 hours in the day and I have to sacrifice something. My wife ruled out offering up one of our children, my job is kind of important to life and so I've narrowed it down to either sleep or exercise."

Advice giver: "Exactly. Do both."

Not that I'm fond of trotting out my vast knowledge of Disney movies but the Sea Witch makes a good point to little perky-breasted (talk about a water bra!) Ariel when she croons, "Life's full of tough choices in it." Of course that was right before she pulled a Chase Bank credit card (yeah, you suck Chase!) maneuver and stole Ariel's twee voice after making her sign an incomprehensible contract but I digress. The point is that there are times when you will have to choose between exercise and sleep. And it isn't always as simple as advice columnists make it out to be.

For myself, I think you all know which one I choose. Confession time: when my current youngest (i.e. the one not still tenaciously occupying my womb) was in the hospital a couple of years ago with an unknown infection, I stayed by his side 24/7. He was so scared and so sick that the only way he would sleep was if I held him upright in the rocking chair. I didn't sleep for two days straight (also a measure of how scared I was). When my husband, who had been at home with our older two, came to spell me for a few hours so I could get some sleep and shower, you know what I did? I went straight to the gym and did kickboxing for an hour. I say this not as a point of pride - I am the girl who was diagnosed with compulsive exercise - but rather as a point of reference. Exercise: it's how I deal.

For many others however, it's the opposite situation. It's much easier to curl up in bed, hit snooze and ditch the morning jog. Sleep is how they deal.

The answer of course is the one thing I'm really not good at: balance. Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you that you must do both at the same time - although N8's comic above is wicked funny - but you do need to find that place of balance for yourself, weighing the pros and cons of each activity. For me that means forcing myself to not exercise sometimes. As I'm rapidly approaching that fabled sleeplessness that is life with an infant, I need to remind myself that lack of sleep makes me grouchy, depressed, and have mad sugar cravings. In short - cortisol city. It may be in my best interest to skip the gym in favor of a nap. For others that may mean forcing yourself out of bed three mornings a week to get in 30-60 minutes of exercise, even though you may not have had quite enough sleep.

In the end I think it is that concept of "enough" that we are all trying so hard to define. Most of us don't get enough of sleep or of exercise. Because life isn't perfectly calibrated. But that doesn't mean it's a loss! Just do the best you can do to fit both into your life over time and understand that on a daily basis you'll be probably be lacking in one area or the other. Here are some of my tips on how to do that:

- Make your workouts shorter. Crossfit, The Monkey Bar Gym and other interval or circuit style workouts offer a huge metabolic reward for a very short investment of time. You absolutely can get a quality workout in 30 minutes or less. You just have to work very very hard during those 30 minutes.

- Cut out TV. I know, I know, Glee is hysterical but if you are so time-crunched that you are forced to choose between sleep and exercise and TV I hope you realize which one of those three should go first. Trust me, its easier to do than you think it is!

- Take a nap. If it's one thing I learned from my time in Spain it is that every country should have a mandatory midday siesta. Remarkably restorative.

- Break up your workout into chunks. Yeah you probably won't change into workout clothes every time (although mad props if you rip off your suit and tie in a phone booth to reveal your Under Armor) but you can still work in lots of incidental exercise into your day.

- This may be my most important suggestion: Stop worrying about what you're not doing and focus on the benefits of what you are doing. Being a chronic worrier myself, I know how tempting it is to bemoan all that you are lacking but worrying only drives up those stress hormones. Every little bit - whether sleep or exercise - helps! So give yourself kudos for what you are getting right.

Certainly you all can do better than my wishy-washy answer though! Which do you think is the better investment: sleep or exercise? What tips do you have for finding that balance? Also, do they even have phone booths anymore? No wonder Superman died.
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