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Sleep just as critical to fitness as exercise

Sleep just as critical to fitness as exercise

By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer

Have a suggestion for an activity you think I should try? Call me at 216-999-4632 or send me an e-mail.

As a columnist at a daily newspaper, I have no need to place calls to radio programs. I've got my own platform, thank you. But the other day, while driving, I heard a comment on an afternoon talk show that nearly prompted me to pull over, pick up my phone, and launch into a tirade. Happily, I restrained myself, opting for a moment of reflection instead.

It had to do with sleep. Specifically, how lame it is to go to bed at 10 p.m. Which rubbed me the wrong way, since for me, a fitness enthusiast who generally tries to stay sharp, 10 p.m. is frankly on the later side. Now, this was not a medical program. Sleep was not the main topic, and there were no experts on hand to counter the host's opinion. The broader issues that day were actually marriage, children, and their deleterious effects on one's hipness.

Those parts were all well and good. I can understand why unmarried people without kids see those next steps as life-ending rather than life-affirming. I myself was once petrified of having a child, and it wasn't so long ago that I wouldn't even head out the door until 10 p.m.

But to claim that early bed-times in general are a downer, well, that's just something I can't abide. Not when it's my job to promote healthy behavior. Not while it's still true almost all of us could use more rest.

People always wonder how I have the time and energy to do the things I do. Marathons, triathlons, different fitness activities every single week; it probably does seem baffling.

But there's no real secret. I just take sleep seriously. If I don't get the eight hours I shoot for every night, I at least get six or seven. In my mind, sleep is another component of training, a critical piece of the fitness puzzle, the spinach that makes me feel like Popeye.

Yet for many, sleep is the element most likely to get trimmed. And that's unfortunate, because a lot of important stuff happens while your eyes are closed.

Not only are you recharging your batteries but you're repairing the damage done your joints and muscles. I often put sleep and protein shakes in the same category: after hard workouts, both are essential.

Athletes especially are prone to the irrational belief that more exercise is always better. Training for my last triathlon, I often convinced myself that the benefits of another hour or two on the bike-trainer at night outweighed my need for rest.

This, despite the fact that sleep is known to improve athletic performance. If I do well at a race, you can bet I got solid rest beforehand. If I do poorly, there's a good chance it's because I skimped somewhere.

Of course, sleep is a luxury for those who work multiple jobs or take night-classes. All I can advise people in those situations is to entertain the possibility that getting more sleep could actually save time, enabling you to function more efficiently. Doctors and airplane pilots certainly know that to be true.

No less an obstacle to sufficient rest are children, those great quashers of coolness, whose only predictable habit at night tends to be waking at odd hours. Parents more than almost anyone should be hoarding their sleep like treasure.

Even if I didn't have a one-year-old, though, I'd still make a point of going to bed on time. If that makes me boring, so be it. Sleep may be dragging down my social life, but I know it's keeping me young.