Get Fitter by Sleeping More

Recently published research on young adults supported the link between perceived physical fitness and quality of sleep. This might sound obvious to you but the fact is that we have become numb to reserving more and more time for daytime activities at the expense of exercise or even worse, sleep.

Here’s the science behind the effects of shaving those hours off your sleep and why it may actually be detrimental to your level of fitness.

Huge bodybuilder sleeping to get fit

Finding #1: Sleeping for longer could mean better performance

The support for sleep extension leading to peak athletic performance has been reinforced over many years of research conducted on competing athletic teams at Stanford University. In fact, many of the participating swimmers set new personal and official records during the course of the study [1], whilst basketball players saw improvements in a range of skills – from sprinting faster to shooting more free throws (aka foul shots)[2].

Participants didn’t simply prioritize sleep to the point that they got ‘just enough’, but added extra hours of sleep each night.  Despite being young athletes, already at the top of their game, they managed to significantly improve their fitness and reported feeling less fatigued and more vigorous.

On the flipside, sleep loss has been shown to negatively impact the physical efficiency of soldiers in basic training [3], further supporting the potential benefits of eliminating sleep debt in order to improve intense physical performance [1-2].

Whether you are an athlete or an Average Joe, sleep is something all of us two-legged types need to remain functional.


Finding #2: Longer time asleep could mean decreased likelihood of injury.

Previous research on teenagers has established a significant link between time spent asleep and likelihood of injury, with teenagers who slept for at least 8 hours being 68% less likely to become injured [4]. Further research is required to study the possible link between the impact of sleep loss on motor skills and reaction time.

It has long been theorized that sleep is primarily a restorative process, and there is research that supports sleep having healing properties.  In fact, the authors of an older study have speculated that bodily functions occurring during sleep, especially during the phase of deep sleep, help renewal throughout our bodies – from tissue, through helping muscles rebuild to helping bones heal [5].

If you’ve ever injured yourself you’ve probably been advised to get lots of rest. Why allow yourself to get injured you give your body the rest it needs?

man sleeping in front of computer funny - face shaved in hair

Finding #3: Better physical fitness linked to higher sleep quality.

On the other hand, various studies have established a positive and proportional link between our level of physical fitness and our sleep quality [6].

Being physically fit isn’t necessarily the result of killing it at the gym – even brisk walking has been shown to improve endurance [7] while a twice-a-week bout of Hatha yoga was seen to improve muscle strength and endurance in adults after just 8 weeks [8].

Research indicates that it may also be possible to harness the mental impact of good sleep and feeling rested to improve our fitness. Poor or insufficient sleep has been shown to impact our mood [9] and energy [10] which can, as you may well know, make all the difference when trying to talk yourself into exercise.

So, what should we take away from this research? Namely that there is a strong evidence for getting as much sleep as you need and, if you’re aiming to shape up, sleep might not be where you should be cutting corners.


[1] Mah, C.D., Mah, K.E., Dement, W.C. (2008). Extended sleep and the effects on mood and athletic performance in collegiate swimmers. Sleep 31, A128.
[2] Mah, C.D., Mah, K.E., Kezirian, E.J.m Dement, W.C. (2011). The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. SLEEP, 34(7), 943-950.
[3] Crowley, S.K. et al. (2012). Sleep during basic combat training: a qualitative study. Military Medicine, 177 (7), 823-828.
[4] American Academy of Pediatrics (2012, October 21). Lack of sleep tied to teen sports injuries. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 17, 2013, from­/releases/2012/10/121021102814.htm.
[5] Adam, K., Oswald, I. (1984). Sleep helps healing. British Medical Journal, 289(6456), 1400-1401.
[6] Gerber, M., Brand, S., Holsboer-Trachsler, E., Pühse, U. (2010). Fitness and exercise as correlates of sleep complaints: is it all in our minds? Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 42(5), 893-901.
[7] Murphy, M.L., Nevill, A.M., Murtagh, E.M., Holder, R.L. (2007). The effect of walking on fitness, fatness and resting blood pressure: A meta-analysis of randomised, controlled trials. Preventive Medicine, 44 (5), 377-385.
[8] Tran, M.D., Holly, R.G., Lashbrook, J., Amsterdam, E.A. (2001). Effects of Hatha Yoga Practice on the Health-Related Aspects of Physical Fitness. Preventive Cardiology, 4(4), 165-170.
[9] Pilcher, J., Huffcut, A.I., (1996). Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: a meta analysis. SLEEP, 19(4), 318-326.
[10] Lim, J., Dinges, D.F. Sleep deprivation and vigilant attention. Department of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.

Rosie Gollancz

Rosie is the Community Manager at Sleepio, an online sleep improvement programme grounded in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia - visit for the latest research from our team of sleep experts.

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