The Science of Sleep: How Rest Helps You Stay Active and Mindful

Kinsey Mahaffey
Kinsey Mahaffey
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There are only 24 hours in a day, so it can be tempting to maximize your waking hours to accomplish more, no matter the cost. After a night of interrupted, minimal, or no sleep, you may feel tired and unmotivated, and you may have a hard time focusing on…anything.

These side effects are blatantly obvious if you are used to good quality sleep, but they may be less obvious to you if you are chronically under-slept. Even though you feel like you’re getting more done by shortchanging your sleep, are you really? In a #teamnosleep culture of achieving, it’s important to understand the physical and mental benefits of making sleep a priority to stay alert and physically active.  

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Mindfulness is commonly used as a therapeutic technique to reduce stress or anxiety.

The key is to be completely focused on the present, especially when the temptation is to let the mind wander and ruminate on past or future events. Mindfulness can help reduce stress and allow you to focus on the task at hand. This skill is particularly important when it comes to being productive both inside and outside of the gym. 

Consider what happens when you’re working out on low sleep and a decreased ability to focus. You might lose count of reps (although, LBH, that can happen on a good day) or forget to pay attention to form during a lift. The ability to be mindful ensures that you get the most out of your workout, decrease your risk of injury, and enhance your performance and results overall.

Mindfulness can also help you boost your nutrition. Mindful eating has proven to be effective in reducing unhealthy eating behaviors like emotional and binge eating, while also improving diet quality over time (The Nutrition Source 2020).

Want to know how to bring mindfulness to the forefront of your career? Look into NASM's Certified Wellness Coach course and all it has to offer.

Bringing Sleep and Mindfulness Together

So how are sleep and mindfulness related? The answer is twofold:

1. Getting sufficient sleep can help you be more mindful. Sleep studies reveal that sleep deprivation impacts cognitive function by lowering attention span and working memory (Alhola and Polo-Kantola 2007). This simply means that when you get less sleep, your ability to concentrate on the task at hand decreases, thus decreasing overall productivity. 

2. Mindfulness can improve your sleep. Mindfulness practices have been shown to improve total sleep time, sleep efficiency, and improved ability to fall asleep and stay asleep (Shallcross et al. 2019). 

3 Benefits of Healthy Sleep 

Out of the numerous benefits of healthy sleep, here are 3 benefits that will have you wanting to focus on your sleep game:

Sleep lowers stress levels. According to the American Psychology Association (2013), the amount and quality of your sleep can have an impact on your perceived stress level. In a study by the APA, adults who reported getting more hours of sleep (7.1 hours) also reported lower levels of perceived stress as compared with those who slept less (6.2 hours). 

Sleep removes metabolic waste from the brain and improves memory. In deep sleep, the brain removes protein buildup and repairs and restores brain processes. Sleep is also vital for memory consolidation or, the process through which learned information becomes stable, long-term memories.   

Sleep increases the likelihood that you’ll stick to your exercise program. A lack of sleep can make it challenging to have the motivation and the energy to stick to your workout plan. In a 2014 study, participants who were in sleep deficit also exhibited lower levels of physical activity (Kline 2014).

How to Practice Healthy Sleep

What is considered healthy sleep? There are 4 elements of healthy sleep that are crucial for brain health and overall well-being: 

Depth: Entering all REM and NREM sleep stages (aka getting deep enough sleep). 

Duration: According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults over the age of 18 need an average of 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, and older adults need 7 to 8 hours (Suni 2022).

Continuity: Continuous, uninterrupted sleep. 

Regularity: Maintaining a consistent wake and rise time throughout the week. 

While you may not be able to directly control the depth and continuity of your sleep, practicing good sleep hygiene can help to improve these important elements of sleep. Sleep hygiene is a step-by-step routine of behaviors adopted at nighttime to promote restorative sleep. 

How you feel during the day can be a good indicator of the quality of your sleep. Are you tired during the day? Do you require caffeine to function? Are you able to focus on your work? Do you lack motivation and the energy to exercise? Some of these can be indicators that you might benefit from trying some of these sleep hygiene tips!

Here are some things that you can do to get better sleep:

Get some sun in the morning and avoid screens an hour before bedtime. This can help to keep your circadian rhythm in line. 

Relax before bed by reading a book, taking a bath, or listening to relaxing music. 

Stick to a consistent sleep/wake schedule. Waking at the same time each day will help you regulate your bedtime. Set an alarm to help you get up at the same time every day – yes, even on the weekends.

Use your bed for only sleep. Do your studying, working, or TV watching in another room to train your brain to associate your bed with sleep and restfulness. 

Limit caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Caffeine has a half-life of 5 hours in most people, so try to avoid caffeine past lunchtime. Nicotine and alcohol also inhibit sleep, so it’s best to avoid them right before bedtime.

Move every day. Physical activity has been shown to improve sleep and help you fall asleep faster. 

Manage stress. Adopt a mindfulness practice, journal to “dump” your worries at the end of the day, and/or visit a mental health professional to help you manage the stressful factors in your life. 

It’s important to manage expectations when making changes to your sleep schedule. It takes time and consistent effort to see results, so stick with it. Choose one or two of these strategies to start out with and implement them for 2 weeks. Evaluate what’s working and what’s not working and continue to adjust until you find the routine that works best for you. 


Mindfulness is closely linked with sleep and physical activity. Good sleep improves your ability to stay physically active, mindful, and productive. Small tweaks to your sleep routines can make a big impact not only on your sleep but also on your overall health and well-being.

For more in-depth information on the science of sleep, the NASM Certified Wellness Coach course offers fitness professionals science-backed strategies for helping clients to improve their sleep for better overall health and fitness. 


Alhola, P., & Polo-Kantola, P. (2007). Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 3(5), 553–567.

American Psychological Association. (2013). Stress and sleep. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep

Kline C. E. (2014). The bidirectional relationship between exercise and sleep: Implications for exercise adherence and sleep improvement. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 8(6), 375–379. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827614544437

NASM Certified Wellness Coach

Shallcross, A. J., Visvanathan, P. D., Sperber, S. H., & Duberstein, Z. T. (2019). Waking up to the problem of sleep: can mindfulness help? A review of theory and evidence for the effects of mindfulness for sleep. Current opinion in psychology, 28, 37–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.10.005

Suni, E. (2022). How much sleep do we really need? Retrieved from Sleep Foundation website: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need

The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2020). Mindful eating. Retrieved from Harvard School of Public Health website: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mindful-eating/#:~:text=Eating%20mindfully%20means%20that%20you,improve%20the%20overall%20eating%20experience.

The Author

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey, MPH, is a Houston-based fitness educator, personal trainer and health coach who developed her commitment to lifelong fitness while playing Division I volleyball. She’s passionate about helping others cultivate a healthy lifestyle and enjoys educating other fitness professionals who share this vision. She’s a Master Instructor and Master Trainer for NASM. You can follow her on LinkedIn here.


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