Do you have any resolutions this year?
It might be worth setting some goals; Fidelity Investments’® annual Financial Resolutions Study found that people who made resolutions at the start of 2021 were more optimistic about the future than those who didn’t (Dhue, 2021). Key findings from the Financial Resolutions Study can be found here. While the survey focused primarily on financial resolutions, it covered non-monetary goals as well. An interesting trend is that more Americans are setting resolutions related to physical health, mental health, or general well-being in 2022 compared to 2021. “Eat more nutritiously”, “exercise”, and “focus on things that truly matter” were top priorities in the 2022 Fidelity survey; previous years have seen items like “lose weight,” “quit smoking,” or “drink less alcohol” topping the list (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1988; Oscarsson, Carlbring, Andersson, & Rozental, 2020).
Unfortunately, setting a resolution doesn’t always translate into keeping a resolution. Longitudinal studies have found that 55% of resolution-makers stick to it after one year (Oscarsson et al., 2020), and only 19% were able to keep their resolutions after a two-year period (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1988). Writer Marta Acosta would say that “the problem with New Year’s Resolutions is that you’re expected to make tectonic lifestyle changes immediately after the holidays when your brain is as lumpy and dried out as a slice of fruitcake that someone shoved under the sofa” or that “New Year’s Resolutions are designed to fail since they’re made at a time when people are exhausted emotionally and physically”(Acosta, 2013). Ah, here’s where sleep comes in. The rest of this post will be about how sleep can help alleviate the exhaustion preventing you from achieving your resolution goals.
Goal 1: Eating More Nutritiously or Losing Weight
Whether the resolution-maker is more concerned with longevity or they are interested in obtaining a certain aesthetic, sleep can help with weight loss or nutrition goals. Here’s a great place to mention that health is far more complex than a body weight number. Fixating on body weight may actually derail legitimate plans for physical or mental self-improvement. Body mass index (BMI) is a commonly-used biometric that has been found to be a poor indicator of actual body fat, but is still related to disease risk and overall mortality (Nuttall, 2015). Longer sleep is associated with lower BMI and more favorable metabolic and cardiac health profiles (Cappuccio & Miller, 2017; Potter, Cade, & Hardie, 2017; St-Onge et al., 2016). Individuals with higher BMIs are at an increased risk for sleep disturbances like obstructive sleep apnea that are known to negatively impact long-term health (Jehan et al., 2017).
Insufficient sleep is related to increased appetite, especially for unhealthy foods (Gonnissen, Hursel, Rutters, Martens, & Westerterp-Plantenga, 2013; Knutson, 2007; Lin et al., 2020; Spiegel, Tasali, Penev, & Cauter, 2004). A 2011 study found that individuals who went to bed later consumed more calories in the evenings, consumed more fast food and full-calorie soda, and consumed less fruit and vegetables compared to sleepers who went to bed earlier and had longer sleep duration (Baron, Reid, Kern, & Zee, 2011). Relatedly, a 2014 study found that extending bedtime was associated with a 14% decrease in overall appetite and a 62% decrease in desire for sweet and salty foods in overweight young adults (Tasali, Chapotot, Wroblewski, & Schoeller, 2014). Social jet lag, the phenomenon where a person's sleep patterns differ so greatly between the weekday and the weekend as to cause feelings of fatigue, has even been associated with resting-state changes in the brain regions related to appetite (Nechifor et al., 2020). The results from these studies clearly indicate that increasing sleep duration and establishing a regular bedtime can help achieve nutrition and weight loss goals.
Goal 2: More Exercise
I love Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but I always cringe when I see him posting about his 4:00 AM workouts on social media. Human growth hormone, known for its role in muscle growth, strength, and exercise performance, is released during sleep. As humans and professional wrestlers-cum-actors get older, the total amount of growth hormone secreted over a 24-hour span decreases by two- to- threefold (Van Cauter & Plat, 1996). I’m begging you, D.J., go back to sleep! Sacrificing sleep by waking up early or staying up late to hit the gym is going to undermine your resolution and undercut the benefits of exercising in the first place. Sleeping longer may seem counterintuitive to the goal of being more active, but increasing sleep duration can actually lead to greater levels of activity during waking hours (Devine et al., 2019). Sleep loss negatively affects aerobic capacity and muscular endurance and may be related to overtraining syndrome and injury risk (de Sousa Nogueira Freitas et al., 2020; Fullagar et al., 2015; Grandou, Wallace, Fullagar, Duffield, & Burley, 2019; Simpson, Gibbs, & Matheson, 2017). Plus, if the real motivation behind a resolution to exercise more is related to losing weight or improving long-term health, I can further refer you to the points I made above for Goal 1.
Goal 3: Cut Back on Smoking, Alcohol, or Other Substances
It may be surprising to learn that sleep is related to addiction. Poor sleep is actually a common risk factor for addiction and relapse in tobacco, alcohol, or other substance use disorders (Ahrens & Ahmed, 2020; Brower & Perron, 2010; Conroy & Arnedt, 2014; Hamidovic & de Wit, 2009). Smoking and drinking are related to sleep disturbances in a bi-directional fashion, meaning that tobacco and alcohol can cause sleep disturbances, but sleep disturbances also increase a desire to smoke or drink (Ara, Jacobs, Bhat, & McCall, 2016; He, Hasler, & Chakravorty, 2019). Resolving to stop or reduce consumption may be more successful if the quitter acknowledges that sleep is related to addictive behaviors. In Goals 1 and 2, I recommended increasing sleep duration or improving sleep hygiene. But someone who is quitting smoking, drinking, or other substances may have new or worsening sleep difficulties that cannot be fixed by going to bed earlier. If that is the case, I recommend seeking out a personalized intervention strategy with the help of a qualified sleep medicine or addiction medicine specialist.
Goal 4: Focus on What Truly Matters
Sleep is what truly matters. Nothing else. Moving on.
Just kidding! However, that joke highlights the difficulty of Goal 4. To focus on “what truly matters”, someone with this resolution has to first figure out what matters to them. Sleep deprivation affects memory, emotional decision-making, prosocial behavior, moral judgement, and our ability to pay attention (Alkozei et al., 2018; Banks & Dinges, 2007; Boardman et al., 2018; Cousins & Fernández, 2019; Killgore, 2010; Killgore et al., 2007; Lim, Tan, Parimal, Dinges, & Chee, 2010). Perhaps a good starting point for someone hoping to achieve Goal 4 would be to clear their schedule for a day and sleep satiate, which is a fancy science term that means sleep as long as you want to. Once you have cleared your mind of all the adenosine and beta-amyloids, you may be able to think clearly about what is important in your life. Whatever else ends up on the list, don’t forget to add sleep!