How Much Sleep Do You Need?

How much sleep do you need?

Many years ago, I wrote an article about training with a newborn. At the time, my son was 3 and my daughter was only 8 months old. It was rare that I ever slept more than a few hours at a time. Now that my kids are older (9 and 7) and my life has changed, it’s a good time to readdress the topic. Not only do I continue to receive questions about sleep, but I’ve also seen my name falsely referenced as someone who hardly sleeps. That isn’t entirely true. I might not sleep as much as my dog (pictured above), but I’m not opposed to sleep either. Therefore, I’ll use this entry to examine just how much sleep you need to function both physically and mentally.

Full Disclosure

For starters, I don’t claim to be an authority on sleep or sleep deprivation. I can however share my experiences as an athlete, business owner, and parent. I’m a real person who lives an active life. I have obligations and responsibilities other than myself. I’m not writing this entry after napping all day in a college dorm. Instead, I’m writing as a regular person who lives a busy life and doesn’t always sleep as much as he probably should. With that said, I’ve experimented with just about every possible sleep arrangement so I have a few things to say on the subject.

The Real World

Earlier this week, I saw a so-called fitness celebrity recommend that everyone get at least 10 hours of sleep a night. I literally laughed out loud as I read his comments. I’m not a betting man, but I’d be willing to bet that the person who shared that opinion didn’t have kids and wouldn’t recognize a real day of work if it smacked him in the face.

Speaking for myself, my day typically begins at 5:00 a.m. each morning. For me to get 10 hours of sleep, I’d need to be in bed at 7:00 p.m. which would mean abandoning my children at practice. They are usually still on the baseball or soccer field at that time. I’m guessing the kids (as well as the police) wouldn’t react very well to driving themselves home.

And as for this blog, it would be nonexistent if I had to go to sleep at 7 p.m. each night. My evening hours are typically spent working on this website and catching up with emails. If I couldn’t do it at night, it wouldn’t happen at all. There’s no other time.

What Really Happens

I’ve read countless studies about sleep and most experts recommend that adults receive somewhere between 7 and 9 hours a night. Occasionally, you may find recommendations outside this range, but you’ll rarely see anyone strongly oppose the 7 to 9 hour estimate.

Personally speaking, 9 hours isn’t an option for me. I average closer to 6 hours a night. There are nights when I occasionally get an extra hour or maybe an hour less, but I rarely stray too far from that 6 hour average. And while 6 hours might not seem like a lot, it’s much more than I was getting when my kids were first born. Six hours seems like an eternity when I think back to those sleepless nights.

A Few Suggestions

I’m not sharing my story to suggest that 6 hours of sleep is ideal for everyone, but rather to provide a real world example of a healthy and busy adult. In the past, I’ve seen the 6 hour range linked to obesity and other health problems. I’m living proof that it doesn’t need to be that way. I’m a firm believer that what you do while you are awake is just as important as what happens at night.

I’m hardly ever sick and I wake up energized most mornings. My philosophy in regards to sleep is to get what I need without overdoing it. I’m also a firm believer in quality over quantity. I’d rather get 6 hours of deep sleep rather than tossing and turning for 8 hours.

A few tips that have worked well for me include the following:

  1. Follow a routine. Regular change isn’t good when it comes to sleep. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time.
  2. Get outside for fresh air during the day and sleep in complete darkness at night.
  3. Short naps can help to recharge your batteries, but keep them brief. Long naps tend to disrupt sleep at night.
  4. Stay away from all electronics at a night. Turn off the television and stay away from all mobile devices.
  5. I’ll say it again, stay away from your phone! You don’t need to check Facebook or Twitter if you wake up to use the bathroom.
  6. Get plenty of exercise during the day.
  7. Eat nutrient rich foods, don’t overeat, and leave the junk alone. I’ve always found that the better I eat, the better I sleep.
  8. Sleep at a comfortable temperature. It’s difficult to sleep well if you are too hot or cold.

Habit

Furthermore, it’s important to note that we all become accustomed to whatever we do on a regular basis. First we make our habits and then our habits make us. For instance, if you are used to sleeping 9 hours but only sleep 6 tonight, you can expect to wake up tired tomorrow. That doesn’t mean 9 hours is necessarily better than 6. It’s just what you’ve become used to over time. In other words, we typically need the amount of sleep that we are used to getting. Any disruption to our normal cycle (less or more) will leave us feeling less than optimal.

When my kids were first born, I was lucky to get 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night. I adapted to the lack of sleep out of necessity. It wasn’t difficult to choose between being broke and being tired. I had a family to provide for so beauty sleep didn’t rank very high on my priority list.

Eventually, I became comfortable dealing with limited sleep. It didn’t happen overnight, but as the months passed, it became part of my daily routine. Now that my kids are older, I’d feel like a zombie if I only had 3 hours of sleep. It’s been years since I had to live that way on a regular basis.

With that in mind, if you ever do need to change your sleep habits, recognize that it won’t be easy at first and the best adjustments are made gradually over time. No new parents wake up feeling chipper every morning after being up all night. It takes time to adapt to change. It is possible though to function well with less than the commonly recommended 8 or 9 hours.

Final Thoughts

In summary, there are certainly days when I wish I could sleep more. Based on my schedule, it just isn’t an option. Unless someone volunteers to pay my bills, I will continue to sleep less than most people. If you find yourself in a similar position, take comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone. And as long as you take care of your body during the time that you are awake, you’ll still have a chance to live a healthy and vibrant life.

Related Entry:

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“People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one.” – Leo J. Burke

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20 comments:

  1. I agree with all that Ross especially with a guy who has 6 kids all within 3 years of each other. 6-7 a night is my max less than 6 is not optimal long term but 7 is my sweet spot. Nutrition and exercise make ALL the difference do not neglect it! Great post thanks as always.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience. Most of the time, a lot of those fitness advices come from people who live on a perfect scenario where they can spend the 100% percent of their days on themselves. Nice to see real life stories with real results. Looking forward for your posts everyday

  3. I read an article stating we sleep in 90 minute cycles, waking at the end of each cycle leaves you refreshed whilst waking at other. Times of the cycle leaves you feeling groggy. That would mean 6 hrs 7.5 or 9 is optimum. I’ve tried it and it seems to work. However in my work I do a mix of days 0700-1600 ) lates 1800-0400 and nights 2200-0700 so sleep routine is a no go for me as I don’t get one.

    1. Just on napping, I never found it to leave *me* refreshed, just extremely groggy. At least until I heard about the whole 90min sleep cycle theory. Now I nap for 90 mins if I can when I’m sleep-deprived (by my usual sleep quantity patterns).

      Found your article an interesting read, although would be interested in hearing more about the transition from those previously used to longer sleeping patterns who now have adjusted to shorter ones.

  4. I fully agree ross. It really isn’t realistic to get 8+ for me with 3 kids and work and training. I wake at 5, workout, get ready for work then box when I finish 3 nights a week. I don’t see much of my family in the week as it is so I’ve made six hours sleep work for me.

  5. Great article once again Ross! What makes you stand apart is that you really keep it real. My youngest one is turning three years old in november and she still wakes me up 4 times a night (she had a rough first year in the hospital). Beginning my day at at 5:00 a.m. is vacation for me haha!

  6. After watching a relatively recent interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger where he shares that throughout his life he has functioned on 6 hours sleep (“Sleep faster” – he says)* I decided to make that change. I used to aim for 8 hours religiously.

    The most important point in your article, Ross, is habit! I now function easily as well on 6 hours as I did on 8 hours. When someone who is used to plenty of sleep has an uncharacteristically bad night and feels tired the next day, the ascribe that to the fewer hours of sleep when in fact it is the sudden alteration that made them tired.

    * I’m aware Arnie may have been ‘trolling’ – seems infitting with his personality.

  7. 100% agree Ross!
    My ladies are now 14 & 12 so I’m starting a new stage where they can do a lot of things on their own and even though I miss the times when they were little princesses, I love the extra time I have, and I don’t use it to sleep more!
    6 hours are perfect!! 🙂

  8. Really good post. As someone already mentioned, Schwarzenegger is also a proponent of 6 hours of sleep per night. He’s one of the most amazing personal achievers alive and so definitely someone to model one’s habits after.

  9. Great article. I’d like to echo Luca’s comments. Nice to read an article written by a guy you can relate too. Our little guy just turned 1 and he still isn’t a good sleeper. Naps are key for me. I use to think naps were for lazy people until I had a kid. I accept that fact I won’t get a full nights sleep and I take advantage of any quiet time/sleep opportunity I can get.
    Cheers
    Joe

  10. Awesome post! I read a lot of fitness blogs and this is the first time I have read such a realistic recommendation about sleep – a refreshing change compared to the typical “7 to 9 hours” (or 10 hours!) recommendations. With 10-hour workdays (12 including commuting), training time, family commitments, etc., there is just no way to get to those upper ranges.

    I agree wholeheartedly that it’s all about habit and what you’re used to. I always need an alarm to wake up, and that’s the part that sucks, but it sucks whether it’s after 6 hours or 8 hours.

    Personally, I am usually in the 6 to 7 hours range during the week. I try to get 7 to 8 on the weekends – and I do that by going to bed earlier, not by getting up later. I get up at approximately the same time every day, even on the weekends (within about a half hour of variability, generally 5:00 to 5:30). I am also a proponent of the 90-minute sleep cycles that @Jon mentioned: theoretically, it is easier to wake up after 6 hours’ sleep than after 7 hours, because in the first case you are waking at a lighter stage of sleep than in the second case. (If you try setting your alarm based on this, remember to add on some time to fall asleep; in other words, if you usually need 15 minutes to fall asleep, give yourself 6 hours 15 minutes, or 7 hours 45 minutes.) This works for me sometimes, but not always… And this is about making it easier to wake up, separate and distinct from how much sleep you need to function well throughout the day. A lot of times I’ll still choose to get the extra sleep even if it’s going to result in waking up mid-cycle.

    Another suggestion if you hate the feeling of being awoken from a deep sleep with an alarm – try a “progressive alarm” that wakes you gradually – there are smartphone apps for this.

  11. After being hounded by guys at work I’ve recently got one of those “FitBit” things – (basically so we can “encourage” (ie: taunt/shame!!) each other to get off out collective asses as much as possible!!).
    Most interestingly for me; it tracks sleep and according to the app I’m averaging 5hr 44mins a day… and I feel fine.
    8? 9? 10 hrs?!?!?!??? what do these people do all day??? Or maybe what DON’T they do? is a better question.

  12. I absolutely agree with this post. This is the only habit I am having a difficulty of following. I usually start my day at 5:30pm and end it at 12am, so sleeping for at least 6 hours is hard for me. But I am still hoping that overtime I can actually lengthen my sleeping time. I felt like I’m totally deprived from sleeping and I just want to indulge myself in deep slumber once in a while, no interruptions.

  13. Great article Ross and one that always intrigues me personally. I work a weird shift roster which incorporates either 2 days and 3 nights , 2 days 2 nights or 3 days 2 nights with either 4 or 5 days off for 12 hour shifts.

    I find it very hard to find time for sleep especially after a night shift where I may only get between 5-7 hours of sleep and try to maximise my days off by only sleeping for 4 hours on the first day off.

    Have 3 children as well and one with severe autism who even though he’s 10 now still has some ridiculous sleep patterns of his on which disrupt both myself and his mother, haha:)

    Pretty much have learnt to adapt to putting as much into a day as possible and getting a good quality night’s sleep even if it’s only for 5 hours or so and making sure I’m eating right and exercising smart and when the body feels like it’s ready to do so.

    Some days and nights and lack of sleep can be a killer but those nights when you can get the extra sleep is a blessing that allows the mind and body to be refreshed and ready to take on another day.

  14. I am going to weigh in on this one. I agree with 6 hours is fine, because I believe the sleep cycle clock is accurate. A sleep cycle is 90 minutes long, or 1.5 hours. 6 hours is 4 of these cycles. Research and studies suggest that waking up on a 90 minute interval mark determines how you feel throughout the day, tired wise.

    For example, waking up on a 6 hour mark [4 x 90 minutes] is better for you than waking up on a 7 hour mark, as the 7 hours would make you wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle, which according to studies would leave you feeling tired.

    You should also aim for going to bed 15-30 minutes before you expect to sleep. My times look like this:

    Bed: 10:30pm-10:45pm
    Sleep: 11:00pm
    Wake: 5:00am

  15. I note that the ‘fitness celebrity’ states not just 10 hours but at least 10 hours. Does this suggest even more would be better? Hilarious!!

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