A recent NY Times article highlighted the various ways in which our behaviors have changed during the course of the pandemic. While some of our habits have changed for the worse – we are spending less time on personal grooming and more time in front of screens – other habits seem to have improved. Overall, we’ve spent more time cooking, more time connecting with friends and family (albeit virtually), and more time sleeping.
Across all age groups, hours spent sleeping increased, with most adults getting close to 9 hours per night in 2020. Given that the National Sleep Foundation recommends that most healthy adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, and between 120-140 million US adults report not achieving the recommended amount of sleep,  one might conclude that our longer sleep times during the pandemic have been a positive outcome. But let’s dive under the covers to take a closer look.
When we talk about sleep, it’s not just the quantity of sleep that’s important – it’s the combination of quantity and quality that makes up optimal sleep. Achieving optimal sleep is essential for our health and our productivity, as sleep allows the body to rest and the brain to recharge. The World Health Organization states that “sleep is a basic human need and is essential for good health, good quality of life and performing well during the day.”  Poor sleep is associated with increased risk for chronic conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as all-cause mortality.  Poor sleep is also associated with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and attention deficit disorders. Poor sleep impairs cognitive performance and judgement and sleep-deprived workers in the US contribute to a loss of about 1.23 million working days due to insufficient sleep.  Our own data have shown that Vitality members who are top performers at work get the recommended amount of sleep. Further, Vitality members report lower stress levels when getting the recommended amount of sleep, but higher stress levels when fewer hours of sleep are achieved.
So how can we practice proper sleep hygiene to get better sleep and protect against the negative health and productivity outcomes associated with poor sleep?
Turn out the lights: Light can disrupt one’s circadian rhythm and can affect sleep quality. Research has shown that even dim light, like the light from city street coming through your window, can impact sleep quality and quantity. Turn down the lights as part of your nighttime routine and make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible.
Set the stage: The sleep environment affects sleep. Keep your bedroom organized, quiet and cool. Temperatures between 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal for promoting quality sleep.
Put devices to sleep: Not only can the light from your phone disrupt your circadian rhythm, but the mental stimulation from late night email checking can keep you awake. While this is likely a tough habit to break for many of us, including the 37% of Vitality members who report using screens as part of their bedtime routine, try to limit screen time as you’re winding down before bed. Those tweets can wait!
Decaffeinate: Caffeine is a stimulant that stays in your body for up to 6 hours after consumption, so that afternoon cup of coffee is actually hurting your sleep. Limit your caffeine intake and focus on building better sleep habits – if you’re well-rested, you may not need that cup of coffee!
Sober slumber: While drinking alcohol may initially help you fall asleep, it actually can lead to more disturbed sleep and leave you feeling groggy the next day.
Watch what you eat: Eating habits can impact your sleep – especially if you’ve just consumed a heavy meal or spicy or high fat foods for dinner. The body needs time to digest, and these foods often trigger heartburn which makes it difficult and uncomfortable to fall asleep.
Exercise: Exercise helps to tire you out and regulates circadian rhythms. Being physically active can improve total sleep time, improve sleep quality, and shorten the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.  Vitality’s own research in partnership with RAND Europe found that individuals who meet the recommended exercise guidelines exhibit significantly better sleep quality than those who are less active.
Consistency is key: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day has been shown to lead to better sleep quality. Do your best to have both a consistent bedtime and waketime – on the weekdays and on the weekends.
While we may be getting more sleep these days, our pandemic habits are likely getting in the way of achieving optimal sleep. Increases in screen time and alcohol consumption, coupled with decreases in physical activity and nutritional quality are stopping us from getting the high-quality restorative sleep our bodies need. But if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we also need quality time with our loved ones. If your plans with friends and family keep you up past your bedtime one night – don’t stress… it’s bad for your sleep!
Lianne E. Jacobs, MPH, Health Communications Strategist, has a master’s degree in public health from Yale University. She is the only indoor cycling instructor who can’t ride a bike. She enjoys traveling the world, laughing at her own jokes, and tricking her husband into eating baked goods made with hidden vegetables.
|||Sleep Advisor. sleepadvisor.org/sleep-statistics. February 2019. 11 October 2019.|
|||WHO. “WHO Technical Meeting on Sleep and Health.” n.d. http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/114101/E84683.pdf.|
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|||Hafner, Marco, Martin Stepanek, Jirka Taylor, Wendy M. Troxel, and Christian Van Stolk. Why sleep matters — the economic costs of insufficient sleep: A cross-country comparative analysis. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1791.html.|
|||Kredlow, M A, et al. “The effects of physical activity on sleep: a meta-analytic review.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine (2015): 427-9. doi: 10.1007/s10865-015-9617-6. Epub 2015 Jan 18.|