Ben Greenfield on How to Sleep Your Way to a Six-Pack

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The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “seven is the new eight,” and that you may need slightly less sleep than the traditionally recommended eight hours. But if you’re into fitness, exercising, or mental and physical performance, if you’re concerned about the effect of sleep on appetite regulation, fat loss or muscle gain, or if you want to optimize things like tissue repair, nervous system health and growth hormone release then you may want to think again, and keep reading.

Until recently, the National Sleep Foundation had established guidelines for sleep based on the most up-to-date research. And what they found was that for most adults, sleeping fewer than 7 hours per night is associated with decreased alertness and increased risk for chronic disease, while sleeping more than nine hours per night is also associated with a shorter life and higher risk of chronic disease. However, now it appears that they may also be jumping on board with lower sleep recommendations.

The most recent seven hours per night reported by the Wall Street Journal and being adopted by many people is based on a position has been growing in popularity since 2002, when researchers published this study involving more than 1.1 million people and concluded that people who sleep about seven hours a night live longer than those who get more or less sleep. The scientists reported that sleeping longer than eight hours a night is associated with health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease (although it’s possible that these health issues caused the people surveyed to sleep longer, not the other way around).

But what the Journal failed to take into account is the enormous need for sleep in people who are exercising frequently, beating up their bodies with weight training and running, and also engaging in cognitively demanding tasks like stressful eight to 12-hour work days or a busy family life. For folks who are engaged in this type of body and brain stress, it may be beneficial to look at the infographic in this article from Fatigue Science:  “Why Pro Athletes Sleep 12 Hours A Day.”

Allow me to highlight a few of the quotes from the graphic:

Usain Bolt, the faster sprinter on the planet, says, “Sleep is extremely important to me – I need to rest and recover in order for the training I do to be absorbed by my body.”

Roger Federer, professional tennis player, says, “If I don’t sleep 11 to 12 hours a day, it’s not right.”

Steve Nash, one of the world’s best basketball point guards, says, “For me, sleeping well could mean the difference between putting up 30 points and living with 15.”

Jarrod Shoemaker, professional triathlete, says, “Sleep is half my training.”

Sleep: By the Numbers

Some of the statistics from the infographic are quite interesting too, including:

  • Maximum bench press drops 20 pounds after 4 days of restricted sleep.
  • With proper sleep, tennis players get a 42% increase in hitting accuracy.
  • Sleep loss means an 11% reduction in time to exhaustion.
  • Perceived exertion increases 17-19% after 30 hours of sleep deprivation.

Perhaps you’re getting the idea that athletes and physically active people may need to sleep more than these new seven hour per night recommendations! You’re right. In one study, Stanford University basketball players spent several weeks sleeping at least 10 hours a night (compared to their pre-study practice of sleeping six to nine hours a night), and their performance increase significantly, with far faster sprint times and greater shooting accuracy along with increased physical and mental well-being during both games and practice.

This is certainly anecdotal, but as a coach, the typical Ironman triathlete, hardcore Crossfitter, marathoner, cyclist or above-average exerciser who I train tends to get the best workout and recovery with 7.5-9 hours of sleep per 24-hour day cycle. This is likely due to the enormous surge in growth hormone that occurs during sleep, along with the fact that your nervous system and brain cleans up cellular garbage when you sleep, allowing you to form memories, learn, and come back more cognitively sharp the next day.

Of course, hand-in-hand with athletic performance is the amazing bodies and healthy eating patterns that many athletes are able to maintain. If you’re sleeping properly, both fat loss and appetite regulation become far more simple. A growing body of research suggests that there’s a link between how much people sleep and how much they weigh. In general, children and adults who get too little sleep tend to weigh more than those who get enough sleep. A big part of this is the significant impact that sleep deprivation has on appetite regulation hormones – making that Snickers bar just a bit easier to reach for when you’re low on sleep.

If you want to take a deep dive into the science of how your body repairs itself as you sleep, and how important hormones such as growth hormones and appetite regulating hormones are regulated when you sleep, then you can read this two part article series I’ve written, but ultimately, if you’re exercising frequently, then I’d encourage you to ignore these new recommendations for seven hours, and instead shoot for 7.5 to 9 hours per night, or at least per 24-hour sleep cycle. For example, I typically sleep eight hours per night, then take another 20-40 minute nap during the day, usually after lunch.

Finally, when it comes to fitness and sleep, the two can complement one another quite nicely, and a good exercise routine can definitely help you sleep better. You can learn exactly how in the article “Can You Exercise to Sleep Better?”.

5 Quick Tips for Proper Sleep

Of course, no discussion of sleep would be complete without a few basic tips for proper sleep hygiene – especially if getting more than seven hours of sleep per night is difficult for you due to restlessness or insomnia. Here are five quick tips for better sleep:

  1. Use the right mattress. We use organic mattresses in our home – specifically natural memory foam mattress that is hypoallergenic, made from sustainable, non-toxic materials like hevea milk (rubber tree sap), natural latex, unbleached organic cotton, essential oils, natural plant extracts, and no metal springs (meaning less EMF in the bed room). The brand we use is “Essentia”.
  2. Use natural lighting. We use low blue light bulbs made by a company called “Lighting Science” in our bedroom and in the children’s bedroom, and also have no melatonin-disrupting televisions or screens in the bedrooms.
  3. Use natural nutrients. Magnesium can work wonders for helping you to relax and sleep, and lavender essential oil sprinkled on the pillows or rubbed into the back of the neck also works wonders.
  4. Keep things cool and comfortable. A cool environment is often conducive to better sleep (and a higher metabolism!). This can be tough if you prefer falling asleep with the weight of a blanket (e.g. the “smothering” technique) but you may often wake up sweaty and uncomfortable. If this is the case, try to use thinner blankets and thinner or no pajamas.
  5. Establish a regular bedtime routine. Try to stick to some semblance of a bedtime routine and relatively consistent sleeptime. Sure, there will be the occasional late night movies, parties, trips to restaurants, or travel that keeps you up later then usual, but you should be able to achieve consistency most of the time.

In summary, although you may indeed be able to stay relatively healthy on seven or fewer hours of sleep per night, if you’re a hard-charging individual who stays physically active and who values optimum cognitive and physical performance during the day, you may want to get significantly more sleep.

Want to read more from Ben Greenfield?

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ben-greenfield-greyBen Greenfield is an ex-bodybuilder, Ironman triathlete, Spartan racer, coach, speaker and author of the New York Times Bestseller “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life” ( In 2008, Ben was voted as NSCA’s Personal Trainer of the year and in 2013 was named by Greatist as one of the top 100 Most Influential People In Health And Fitness. Ben blogs and podcasts at, and resides in Spokane, WA with his wife and twin boys.


The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.