Hailey Middlebrook: Why you should take the 8 a.m.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015 - 5:39pm

In Stats 250, homework assignments always ended with the same yes or no question: Do you consider yourself sleep deprived?

We were never told the reason behind the survey, so I’m assuming it was a longitudinal study on whether our sleep patterns changed throughout the course (see, look how much I learned!) but it needs closer inspection. Without fail, my cursor would drift toward the “Yes” box, because I’m a college kid. Saying “I’m so tired” has manifested into a nervous tick, something to groan when the Blue Bus comes around the corner: “How are you?” “I’m so tired.”

Mutual fatigue is something we all share — at least, everyone tells us we’re sleep deprived and we dazedly agree. It’s widely accepted that the average college student’s schedule looks something like this: Wake up around 11:00 a.m., make a minimal effort to prepare for 11:30 class, buy a cheap meal around 2:00, hit the gym on a good day, then hunker down for a study session that will last until the wee hours of morning. Or, if it’s a weekend, replace the stacks with Skeeps.

In every scenario, the common denominator is clear: Late nights and absent mornings. In order to balance sleep deprivation, our tried­ and ­true solution is to maximize the nighttime hours (where the “magic” happens) and sleep in as long as possible. This “magic” comes in different forms — it’s cracking that sweet solution in orgo after a midnight espresso shot, or sprinting down Hill Street in four­-inch heels because the bars are closed and why not? — and is always more monumental in the moment than the next day, when we wake up with pounding headaches and a ticking reminder that half the day is spent.

But wait — unconventional or not, if we students still get seven hours of sleep a night, sometimes more, why are we sleep deprived? What can we do to not always feel so tired?

The answer is fundamentally obvious: We aren’t nocturnal. Our bodies are programmed to rise with the sun and rest when it sets, so that our memories can consolidate, our muscles rebuild and our bones elongate. When the body’s internal clock is tweaked by habitual late nights and sleeping in, these processes stutter and slow, resulting in an unkickable feeling of fatigue. This tiredness then sets off a host of other bad habits, like disorganization, poor diet and exercise slack. According to Women’s Health, night owls consume about 248 more calories a day, double the junk food and half the amount of fruits and vegetables of an early riser — they’re also more sedentary, possibly due to a smaller time-frame to hit the gym. Forbes reports that people who hit the sack earlier and rise early are more in sync with Earth’s circadian rhythms, which provides more restorative sleep — and less pounding headaches.

But the benefits of going to bed early and waking up earlier stretch beyond simply feeling less tired and making smarter choices about diet and exercise. Though we stubbornly associate early mornings with grogginess, studies have shown that the opposite is true — early birds tend to be more focused and self aware. In the Forbes article, studies found that “morning people” came out ahead in the workplace by using their early hours for setting goals and organizing the day; they were also more likely to anticipate challenges and tackle problems efficiently. Since memory is consolidated during sleep (meaning information we’ve absorbed throughout the day “sticks” so it can be later recalled), restorative sleep is the key ingredient to speedier mental function. Like muscles need protein to grow stronger, brains need sleep to be sharper.

Ok. So say you close your laptop at 11:00  and set your alarm for 8:00, getting a full eight hours of Earth-dictated, circadian rhythm­-synched sleep. But when you wake up with the chirping birds, you’re still — drumroll — exhausted. What then?

Roll out of bed and work out. Yes, it may be the last thing you want to do — as we tend to think early mornings cause grogginess, we also assume that exercising at dawn only exacerbates exhaustion — but you won’t regret it. Here’s why: Physical activity spikes energy levels and revs up metabolism, waking up your body much more effectively than a shot of espresso, or even an extra hour of sleep. While this energy boost can happen at any time of the day, morning exercise induces better sleep at night, whereas a sunset run is likely to leave you tossing in your sheets.

Chances are, you’ve already heard this: Early bird catches the worm. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man happy, healthy and wise. Like most habits, it’s hard to nip late nights and lazy mornings in the bud, no matter how many studies tell us we’ll be happier if we run six miles at 7 a.m. and then spend an hour organizing our weekly schedule. The trick to becoming a morning person — or adapting any healthy habit, really — is to make compromises.

For me, that compromise is a steaming cup of coffee. Every time I stumble out of bed to run at 6 a.m., I make a beeline for my coffee maker. While the coffee brews, I change into running clothes, lace up my shoes and pad back to the kitchen just in time for its sputtering stop. For 10 perfect minutes, I’ll sip my coffee and feel my body slowly twitch awake. This little routine is just enough motivation to keep me running out the door.

And let’s face it. Drooping eyelids, pounding headaches and bloating from the Pizza House cheesy bread you had delivered to the UgLi last night aren’t pretty. Make it a goal to become a morning person by finding your own compromise, whether it’s an immediate cup of coffee or a stop at Bruegger’s on the way to your 8 a.m. class. Then check “No” for the sleep deprivation survey — your body and mind will thank you for it.

If you're reading this, it's too late to join Middlebrook on her run. To reschedule, e-mail hailharp@umich.edu