Improve Sleep Quality to See Health Improvements

Typically we don’t think about sleep, or the quality of sleep when we talk about being fit and strong, but obviously sleep is critical for health and fitness.

Not having good quality sleep at night will just about guarantee a cranky day for me. Everything seems like a chore when I’m tired.

I am the type of person who falls asleep quickly but sometimes can’t stay asleep. It seemed to start for me in my 30’s, after children were born, but became more difficult to manage after I turned 50.

Since then, I’ve read several books about it and have gathered lots of helpful ideas on how to improve the quality of sleep. I imagine there are other fit, strong women over 50 who also struggle with this, so I thought I’d share some of the ideas here on Becoming Elli.

My personal goal is to get seven and a half hours of sleep each night. Sometimes I may have to spend up to 9 hours in bed to accumulate that much sleep. I tend wake up often, sometimes just for a minute, sometimes for 10 minutes or longer.

Sleep Stages
You probably know that there are different stages of sleep each night, and that each stage serves a different purpose.

Deep sleep usually happens earlier in the sleep cycle and helps the brain to be cleared of toxins. With deep sleep you typically don’t remember sleeping and time seems to go by very quickly.

Light sleep is the stage of the majority of sleep and you may awaken several times in this stage. A lot of tossing and turning during the night might be considered light sleep. Light sleep is still important for your body to refresh and rest. Light sleep is often the majority of the sleep time and usually in between going to sleep, deep sleep, REM sleep and waking up.

The third stage is REM sleep – Rapid Eye Movement. This is more typically considered the dreaming sleep. It is usually toward the end of the sleep cycle. Waking up with an early alarm may interrupt your REM sleep and that’s why you might remember a dream so vividly. REM sleep helps you make sense of the world, organize memories and deal with emotions. The brain is very active during REM sleep but your body has temporary muscle paralysis so you don’t act out your dreams physically.

I crave at least 60 minutes of deep sleep. I have found the only way to ensure that is an “early” bedtime. If I go to bed after 11, I can’t make up the sleep on the other end, even with sleeping in, so I strive for 9:45 at the latest.

According to the chart on my FitBit, it’s not unusual for women in their 60’s to spend more than 16% to 27% of the night awake. That seems like a lot of waking up to me. I have an average of 14% awake and a 7 and a half hours asleep average going for the past 30 days.

Overall, I find it’s easier to get my sleep in the winter because its a little colder and a little darker than the summer. Being more active in the summer helps me to counteract the shorter and warmer nights.

My FitBit also counts the time I lay in bed awake before falling asleep and after waking up but not getting up. I try to get up at least 3 minutes after waking up if possible. While I like checking the stats on this monitor, it’s really about how I feel both mentally and physically that makes a difference to me.

There are lots of reasons people have a difficult time with sleep. If you have trouble sleep ask yourself these quick questions to see if you have room for improvement in your sleep hygiene behaviors.

Take this Sleep Hygiene Quiz
Do You:

  1. Avoid naps in the afternoon or early evening?
  2. Follow a 15 or 20 minute pre-bedtime ritual?
  3. Limit screens 1 hour before bed?
  4. Stop drinking caffeine? (or eating chocolate) early in the day
  5. Only use the bedroom for sleeping? (not eating or watching TV)
  6. Get your exercise earlier in the day? (not right before bedtime)
  7. Keep your bedroom dark and quiet?
  8. Practice meditation, deep breathing or a warm bath before bed?
  9. Go to bed at the same time each night?

Some people who have trouble falling asleep may also have trouble staying asleep.

Here are two ways that I find helpful to get back to sleep if I wake up and don’t fall right back again.

Relaxation Breathing:
The first one is Yoga inspired. It’s a deep breathing exercise, described by Dr. Andrew Weil. It’s called 4-7-8 breath where you breath in your nose for a count of 4, hold for a count 7, and breath out your mouth for a count of 8. He explains it at length in an audio book called Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing. (Yes, it’s a 2 hour listen with lots of background information and a guided workshop.)

In this YouTube video, he explains the 4,7,8 breathing technique in just 3 minutes:

Dr. Weil teaches this technique to all his patients, other doctors and just about anyone who will listen. He considers this breathing technique to be the one thing that everyone should do for optimum health.

Body Scan:
The other technique I use to improve sleep quality and get back to sleep quickly is a body scan from toes up. There are many apps that offer a guided meditation way of doing it. If you listen to one of them a few times, you’ll get the idea, but it’s best to do it just in your own mind.

This website shows a script that you could record for yourself. The advantage of listening to a calm voice that prompts you what to do helps keep your brain from having to think and relax at the same time. I like to start from the toes up.

When we talked about this in our recent podcast (#34 Improving Health with Training, Sleep and Omega 3), Jill said she also would do a modification of the body scan technique for her young son when he had trouble sleeping. She suggests tightening each section and then relax it for a better effect. I bet that would work well, too!

I really focus on improving sleep quality to get a good night sleep after weight training and working out because I know that it is an important part of recovery. This is when the little muscle tears during exercise during the day gets repaired. The new muscle growth happens with blood flow to muscles helping for muscle coordination, improve reaction time and rebuild the muscle. Sometimes this takes two days after a really hard workout. Not getting enough sleep at this time can lead to problems like hormone imbalance, bad mood, additional stress, difficulty concentrating and slow muscle repair.

Sleep is very important for memory, concentration and focus, learning and overall health.

Do you have trouble with sleep? What have you tried to improve sleep quality? What works? What DOES NOT work!? You can leave a voice message at 330-970-6662 or send me an email at I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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