Do you really need the same sleep schedule every day?
After five days of waking up early to get in your workouts and post-training breakfast before work, spending a Saturday morning sleeping in feels like a necessary luxury. With no desk to run to and the full day ahead of you to work out, walk or Zoom friends, we often find ourselves foregoing the alarm and spending the first few hours of our day still in bed. So what, right?
Well, have you ever rolled out of bed after some extra sleep and found that you’re too tired to get in that long run you’d planned? Or gone for a stroll to pick up a flaky croissant that just didn’t fill a hole? It might be to do with your ever-shifting sleep schedule.
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The benefits of a consistent alarm
We really do need to control our wake up time, says Stephanie Romiszewski, sleep physiologist from the Sleepyhead Clinic. “Despite getting a bit more sleep, we often wake up with feelings of inertia which make you feel rubbish,” Stephanie adds. “You really end up wasting a lot of your morning just trying to get over that, which stops you from spending your days off doing a good workout, going on a walk or generally having a good time.”
But it’s not just about missing out on plans. “Your body needs a goalpost to understand when to start the day. If you keep shifting that then the body physiologically can’t do all the things that you want it to during the day at consistent timings.” It means that biological processes, such as your hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin may be off, explaining why you might get weird appetite changes on the weekend.
And even a short lie-in can make a difference to your body’s functionality, says Stephanie. I tell her that I wake up at 6:45 on the weekdays to get a workout in before my day really begins. On the weekends, I go alarm free but still wake up early naturally, anywhere between seven and eight. “That might not be called a ‘lie-in’ to people, but you’re adding significant time to your sleep schedule,” says Stephanie.
The knock-on effect of that could mess up the rest of my week: “Your body relies on being awake for a certain amount of hours before making you sleepy. Part of the reason that people get so stressed and upset on Sunday evenings is because they’ve had more than they need over the weekend so their body’s not in a position to go to bed when they think they need to.”
You don’t need a set bedtime
“The idea that we need to go to sleep at the same time every night is a fallacy, and it’s nonsense,” says Stephanie. “The time you go to bed is not something you can dictate. The truth is that there are thousands of variables that affect how much we need to sleep, so how can we possibly assume that we’ll be ready to sleep at exactly the same time every day?”
For example, if you end up doing an intense workout followed by a busy day of work, you’ll probably find that you get sleepier earlier than you would if you just do a gentle walk and avoid too much mental stress. “If you’re not sleepy but you take yourself to bed and lie down in a dark room, you’ll increase anxiety and insomnia,” says Stephanie.
However, that’s not to say you should give up any form of nighttime routine. “I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to have the same amount of sleep each night,” says Stephanie. “For example, I am a seven and a half hour sleeper, so I make sure that I have a seven and a half hour opportunity to sleep each night. That means I have a bedroom that is ready for me to sleep in and I have wound down for a specific time. However, if I’m not sleepy, I give myself permission to stay up later and encourage the sleepiness that I need to get me through the night.”
This sleepiness that Stephanie talks about is different from general tiredness or fatigue. “It’s not just about feeling like you need to rest your eyes or feeling a bit achy. True sleepiness is defined by the ability to nod off any minute.”
How to regulate your sleep cycle
Our circadian rhythm is set up by “clocks in every cell in our bodies”, says Stephanie, and they really like regulation. “Every time we veer away from consistent patterns by changing our behaviour, our physiology will change with it. We just don’t realise that our behaviour is much more impactful than we realise.
“We sometimes go to sleep later on Friday and Saturday nights, and that’s totally understandable. That itself is not the end of the world. But if you find there to be a very consistent pattern where you don’t feel that good when you wake up, or you’re relying on oversleeping at the weekend to get you through the week, that isn’t a good sign, and you should try to regulate it seven days a week.”
Start by working backwards from a set wake up time that works for you and your schedule. Take away how many hours of sleep your body thrives off it – for some, it may be nine and for others, it might be seven. Make this your ‘sleep opportunity’ time – the time when you and your bedroom are ready to get into bed as soon as sleep hits. “It seems so backwards to someone who has had a bad night’s sleep to then get up at a set time rather than sleep in and recover. But if you lay in your body will push back the time it gets sleepy. All of the evidence shows that lying in actually just makes us feel worse.”
However, Stephanie points out that these tips are great for people who have poor sleep, but “if there’s nothing wrong with your sleep and you’re quite happy with your routine, there is no need to change it. That will cause too much anxiety around your sleep schedule,” reminds Stephanie.
What about shift workers?
It does not mean that you are doomed if you are someone who can’t have a consistent pattern. For those who chop and change between day and night shifts, such as a doctor, know that you can still regulate your sleep. “You can be consistent, even though your patterns may change,” says Stephanie. “Decide what time you’re going to wake up for your night shifts and what time you’re going to wake up for your day shifts. Even though there are two separate schedules, you will still be sending signals to the body habitually that these are the times you need to be awake.
“It’s also important to not put yourself under pressure to go to bed if you’re not sleepy. Instead, just make sure you get enough rest and don’t do anything too active when you should be sleeping – so no online shopping.”
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).