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How can the science of sleep lead to better rest?

Being well rested can benefit both your mental and physical health.

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Sloths can sleep for more than fifteen hours a day. Giraffes? Less than five. But when it comes to rest, these two species have one thing in common: they go to bed on time. The same is true for every other mammal. Except one. That’s right. Humans are the only mammals who will willingly delay sleep.

The potential impacts of not getting a good night’s sleep – especially over time – are well documented. From impaired judgment to dysregulated moods to sluggishness and slowed reaction times to long-term health impacts, the consequences of not being well rested can be serious for both mental and physical health. Yet more than a third of American adults were found to have “short sleep duration” (less than the ideal amount of sleep) according to 2014 data from the CDC. And a study from early 2020 found that more than half of Americans felt sleepy during the daytime for three or more days – every week.

But while the negative impact of not getting enough rest can be significant, the benefits of being well rested can be expansive in their own right: mood stability, lower levels of stress, increased energy, the list goes on. In one study, basketball players who increased their sleep saw sprint times boost to 15.5 seconds from 16.2 seconds. In the same study, the players who increased their sleep to ten hours a night improved their free throw and three-point shot scoring by nearly ten percent. According to the study, the athletes also reported improved physical and mental well-being.

The question for the ages, though, is how to get better sleep?

If getting a good night’s sleep was easy, the statistics would likely not skew the way they do. Resources abound for how to improve sleep hygiene, including tips and tricks like limiting screen time before bed, staying hydrated throughout the day, getting out in the sunshine when possible, exercising, building routines, using weighted blankets, not using weighted blankets, you name it. If media trends are any indication, there is a collective voracious appetite to get better sleep. In fact, the global market for sleep aids is projected to reach $112.7 billion by 2025.

Understanding what makes sleep restful, though, can make a big difference in pursuing a strategy that is custom tailored to individual sleep needs. Because it’s not just the hours you spend asleep that contribute to how well rested you are – the sleep stages your body goes through and the amount of time you spend in them are key. And while everyone is different, studies show that spending enough time in the REM (“rapid eye movement”) sleep cycle is crucial. It’s where we dream most vividly, after all. And being woken up mid-REM cycle is no picnic. In fact, studies show that interrupted REM sleep can increase sleep inertia and sluggishness, and leave you feeling lethargic. Limited REM sleep overall has been found to increase activity in limbic brain structures, which increases stress.

Let’s consider what it would be like to approach maximizing your recharging time like a scientist. The goal? Wake up feeling rested. The hypothesis? An increased number of uninterrupted REM cycles can lead to more restfulness and more energy throughout the day. But how?

That’s where technology like Fitbit can come in. Fitbit’s Smart Wake feature wakes you up during the optimal stage of sleep (a lighter sleep stage) up to 30 minutes prior to your desired wake-up time.

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