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How to Perform the Day After a Sleepless Night

It's time we do away with the power nap.

January 12, 2024
Medically-reviewed and fact checked by Ryan Lester, PA-C

In certain phases of life – like navigating parenthood with younger children – getting ample sleep can start to feel like an unattainable luxury. It could be that your baby was awake through the night, or your toddler struggled to settle, but the demands of the world outside of your home stay constant: You're still expected to perform at capacity at work and in your familial and societal roles the next day. Luckily, a new bit of research has lent credence to a method that helps to sharpen your mental faculties when sleep-deprived.

A Study You Shouldn’t Sleep On

Outlined in the journal Physiology and Behavior, a recent study by researchers at the University of Portsmouth in England had 12 participants, where each of them were subjected to seven cognitive tasks following a regular night's sleep, before then being allotted only five hours of sleep per night for three consecutive nights. The assigned tasks were repeated under conditions of sleep deprivation while at rest, and then during a 20-minute cycling session.

Results of the sleep-deprived working on the tasks while at rest varied, suggesting varying resilience levels between individuals. However, their key finding emerged: a notable uptick in performance during cycling, suggesting that when dealing with sleep deprivation and also needing to optimize one’s cognitive function, engaging in moderate-intensity exercise could be the dependable fix we’ve all been looking for.

The Fine Print in the Findings

Researchers did draw a line, though, finding that pushing further still through an excessively strenuous workout in order to boost cognitive abilities due to inadequate sleep might yield counterproductive results. Joe Costello, Ph.D., the study's author and Associate Head for Research and Innovation at the University of Portsmouth's School of Sport, Health, and Exercise Science, specifically cautioned against this approach. Costello explained that one plausible reason for exercise enhancing cognitive function is likely related to oxygenation and a surge of cerebral blood flow. 

In a subsequent experiment, participants underwent cognitive tasks, followed by an all-nighter, and then performed the tests at rest and during cycling in low-oxygen conditions. Surprisingly, even with reduced oxygen levels during exercise, individuals demonstrated better task performance while sleep-deprived and cycling compared to being at rest. This finding suggests that factors beyond increased blood flow to the brain contribute to the exercise-induced cognitive boost.

The True Cost of Lacking Sufficient Sleep

Sleep deprivation exacts a toll on the body, impacting short-term cognitive functions such as attention, judgment, and emotional well-being. In the long run, it elevates the risk of various health issues including cardiovascular diseases, obesity, neurodegenerative disorders, and depression. Approximately 40% of people in the U.S. don't meet the recommended seven to nine hours of nightly sleep.

With all of this in mind, the next time you’re forced to take on a full day of responsibilities after a rough night of sleeping, opt for a quick work out instead of a nap. Sweating a bit just might be enough to get you through the day.


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