When I was a kid, I used to pride myself on being able to stay up all night playing video games and still wake up the next morning with enough energy to tackle a full day of school. As I got older, my ability to do so started to wane. Now, if I don’t get at least seven hours of sleep, I’m kind of a monster by the end of the day. Six hours of sleep? Irritated and grumpy all day. Less than six? Forget I even exist.
Sleep is so important for the human body, a fact that many people today tend to forget (or actively ignore). Have you ever overheard someone boasting about how little of sleep they get? It’s true. In certain work environments, people actually gloat to one another about how little sleep they get because of how hard they work or how much they have going on in their life.
A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal released a report discussing how the Centers for Disease Control were analyzing the optimal amount of sleep for the human body, and they concluded that seven hours of sleep is actually better than getting the normally recommended eight.
However, one study conducted on men of the Stanford University Basketball team suggests that if you’re an athlete, or someone who engages in physical activity on a regular basis, you actually benefit from getting more than eight hours of sleep. Quite a bit more, in fact.
Eleven college-aged men were asked to sleep at least 10 hours a night for five to seven weeks; a change from the typical six to nine hours of sleep they were normally getting. The results? Their stats skyrocketed as if they had taken performance-enhancing drugs. Not only were their sprint times much quicker than usual, but their shot accuracy went way up. They also reported feeling much healthier, mentally and physically, during their games and practices.
The Harvard Medical School sheds a bit of light on why this is the case by explaining that many of the body’s restorative processes “like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep.”
Of course, it makes sense that athletes would require more sleep than normal individuals. But, as sleep researcher Dr. Sigrid Veasey, of the University of Pennsylvania, says: “you can never get ‘too much’ sleep. When you have had enough sleep you will wake up.”
The whole idea that seven hours of sleep is the “optimal” amount of sleep for the average person comes from a study that was released in 2002. This study concluded that people who got seven hours of sleep each night tended to live longer than those who got less or more than that number. They actually reported that getting more than eight hours of sleep was linked to severe health problems, like diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
"It is important to understand that this 7 vs. 8 hours finding was not a carefully controlled study but is an association found retrospectively…this pertains only to longevity,” clarifies Veasey.
The amount of sleep each person needs is specific to that person and will vary greatly. My magic number is around seven and a half hours of sleep. But, my best friend, who is an ultra-runner, regularly sleeps 9 to 10 hours a day. And he loves it. If you’re someone who is active and out and about most of the day, research shows that you should try to get about eight hours of sleep.
If you can get more, there’s a strong likelihood that it’s actually doing your body a favor. After all, some of the world’s best athletes get up to 12 hours of sleep a day (one of whom has won three NBA championship titles).