Sleep, Exercise and Balance: Part I


In Part 1 of this three-part series, we explore the importance of sleep on student achievement and well-being.

To read Part 2 of this three-part series, click here.

To read Part 3 of this three-part series, click here.

It’s Thursday morning – Friday eve as you’d like to call it. You have an 8AM lecture followed by tutorial, a 30-minute break that offers precious little respite, another lecture, and a lunch meeting with your group to figure out roles and talking points for next week’s presentation. You’re more than willing to ‘pack it in’ by this time of day but you have a 3-hour lab in the afternoon, then a club meeting, and an evening event you signed up for way back in January you now wish hadn’t. Phew. And don’t forget the protracted wait for the bus in near-zero temperatures and the 45-minute trip home. You couldn’t possibly be faulted for sleeping early. Perhaps a little Netflix before bed…but responsibility calls in a loud clarion voice. Your weekly Canvas discussion post is due at 11:59PM. You also have 30 pages worth of philosophy to get through – existentialism, your favourite – in preparation for tomorrow’s discussion. It’s looking like you’ll be sleeping at 4AM again tonight, if at all. 

Sleep: we’re just not getting enough of it

Drawing of someone sleeping

Image by cdd20 | Pixabay

Sleep. A topic pertinent to all of us yet something we far too often expunge from our list of priorities. This is probably not the first “sleep article” you have read nor will it be the last. At the University of British Columbia and campuses around the country (and the world), there exists a well-established culture of sleep deprivation. In fact, sleep deprivation is concerningly glorified; students often wear “all-nighters” as badges of honour and many consider it a rite of passage. There’s seemingly simply too much to do and not enough time to do it. 

In the United States, approximately one-third of the adult population obtains less than the recommended 7 hours of sleep per night1. Unfortunately, sleep statistics in Canada are on par, if not worse, than those of our Southern neighbours2. Most of us can probably recall having a parent or guardian excoriate us for not keeping a 10PM bedtime and being lectured incessantly on the importance of getting 7 hours of sleep. But where did that magical “7 hour” figure come from? According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), both young adults (ages 18-25) and adults (ages 26-64) are recommended to obtain 7-9 hours of sleep daily3. These recommendations are by no means arbitrary or based on convention alone. Leading specialists and representatives from a number of medical organizations (eg. American Neurological Association) reviewed over 300 peer-reviewed publications and came to a consensus on those figures. 


Okay, what’s the big deal about sleep?

Sleep is necessary for tissue repair, muscle growth, hormone synthesis, and general restoration. You’re probably thinking, “I’ve heard this tune before. Ad nauseum.” From a student’s perspective, sleep can play a pivotal role in academic success, well-being, and emotional wellness. During sleep, the brain processes information we have taken in (acquired) during the day and transfers these “bits and bites” from short-term to long-term memory. In effect, sleep promotes the consolidation of memories by weakening unsuccessful synapses while strengthening others. An extensive body of research demonstrates that lack of sleep diminishes our capacity to focus and pay attention, impairs school performance and job productivity, and inhibits creative thinking4. All of these cognitive and physical capacities lie at the heart of optimal functioning and student success.

3D image of a brain

Image by sbtlneet | Pixabay

If you’ve ever taken an intro psychology course, you’ve probably encountered the terms “procedural memory” and “declarative memory.” Procedural memory is one component of long-term memory that allows us to remember “how to do things” while declarative memory is the other, allowing us to “recall facts and events.” Both sound kind of important, right? Well, it turns out that adequate sleep benefits both. Studies have shown that motor skills show drastic improvement with sleep, attributed to sufficiency in REM sleep5. Had a long day in organic chemistry lab? A good night’s worth of sleep will probably help you in future labs provided they involve performing similar skills and techniques. Declarative memory, as quantified via word pair recall, improved significantly in one study with the authors attributing the effect to repletion of slow-wave nREM sleep6. Therefore, cramming when you’re struggling to keep your eyelids open is probably counterproductive. You’re probably better served sleeping and revisiting the material upon awakening. 

A recent study conducted by Harvard researchers investigating the relationship between sleep and academic performance elucidated a positive association between the two7 . Using the Sleep Regularity Index (SRI), a novel metric that quantifies the probability of an individual being in the same sleep state 24 hours apart, they found that an increase of 10 in SRI was associated with an 0.10 increase in GPA. In short, sleep regularity – not merely the quantity of sleep – also appears to play an important role in wellbeing and academic success. Some students will justify their hectic, insomniac weekday schedules by “sleeping in” on weekends. Before you start pointing fingers, I will admit I am guilty of this myself. However, the effectiveness of this strategy has been called into question by a study published in SLEEP. Despite two nights of recovery sleep totalling 7 hours per night, student participants exhibited residual deficits in attention, processing speed, and alertness8. In other words, you might not have that “spring in your step” you were looking for come Monday despite a relaxing weekend. 


No worries, I can fuel up on coffee.

But what about the C-factor (coffee)? Indeed, coffee is arguably the lifeblood of student life. There’s no denying it. Caffeine can temporarily boost alertness and mitigate the effects of drowsiness and sleep deprivation. But it is NOT a substitute for sleep. In fact, excessive caffeine intake (>5-6 cups per day) and consumption within 6 hours of bedtime can disrupt normal sleep patterns and cause sleep fragmentation, a contributor to daytime drowsiness9. Admittedly, coffee can be a good adjunct to push you through those tough stretches during the term, allowing you to conquer those midterms, lab reports, and papers. But over the course of term, excessive reliance and consumption could be more detrimental to your grades by way of its corrosive effects on sleep. 


There’s just too much to do and not enough time.

Image by Anemone123 | Pixabay

Jacqueline Baltz, a student at the University of Southern California and a Huffington Post contributor, suggests that “Fear of Missing Out” culture or “FOMO” is a major contributor to sleep deprivation10. From attending a never-ending stream of club meetings to going out on Friday after a long day of exams and studying, students are constantly overexerting themselves, pushing beyond their limits at the expense of sleep. She claims also that smartphone ubiquity combined with societal pressures to live and

market her “best life” via social media resulted in overstimulation and an unsustainable schedule she couldn’t keep up with. That begs the question, “How can a student maintain a healthy social life while balancing a full slate of academics and a healthy sleep schedule?” The short answer?  It’s hard. 


But how do I get more sleep (and better sleep)?

But fear not, not all hope is lost. It will likely take an ounce of trial and error, gradual alterations to your routine, and a fair amount of compromise. Compromise. If you consistently find yourself stretched to the extremes, perhaps you should consider scaling back on some commitments, prioritize (and re-prioritize), and carefully choose SOME but not ALL social engagements and extracurriculars to keep. This, acknowledging of course, that the concept of balance differs between individuals. Alas, balance alone will not guarantee sleep repletion or even a single good night’s sleep for that matter. Perhaps then, you may find it useful to consider the following strategies and tips to improving both the quality and quantity of your sleep, which can, over time, augment your academic success and overall well-being.

  • Reduce (or minimize) blue light expose in the evening, especially before bed – yes, put those smartphones away and (try) not to Netflix right before bed
  • Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bed or substitute with a decaffeinated option to capitalize on that sweet (or unsweetened), low buzz placebo effect 
  • Avoid extraneously long naps so as to minimize any disruptions to your internal clock (circadian rhythm) 
  • If you choose to nap, go for a brisk, refreshing power nap of 15-20 mins 
  • Be consistent with your sleep and wake times to stabilize your internal clock 
  • Minimize extraneous light, noise, and other distractions in your sleeping environment 
  • Try not to eat 2-3 hours before bed if at all possible – no, that midnight trek to McDonalds is probably not a good idea, irrespective of mobile offers and mailer coupons  
  • Ensure the temperature of your sleeping environment is consistent – most find that a temperature of ~20oC is most conducive to a good night’s sleep 
  • Avoid exercising before bed – ideally, your final workout should conclude by early evening 
  • Cut down on Instagramming 
  • Cut down further on Instagramming – seriously though 

If you are captivated by the field of sleep research, this review article provides an excellent primer on studies that have investigated the effects of sleep deprivation on performance of various cognitive tasks7.  

Join us for Part 2 of this series, where Temi will discuss the importance of physical activity and exercise on academic achievement and wellness. 

*Since you made it this far, here’s an Easter egg of sorts for you. Some animals (NOT humans), are capable of unihemispheric sleep where one side of the brain is active while the other exhibits slow-wave activity (sleep). These include: bottlenose dolphins, eared seals, fruit bats, common porpoises, and domestic chicken(s)11. Cool huh?  



1. The Epidemic of Sleep Deprivation: A Modern Curse | HuffPost. Accessed February 22, 2019.

2. Joseph R. Canada third most sleep-deprived country: study – National | Published 2016. Accessed February 22, 2019.

3. National Sleep Foundation. How Lack of Sleep Impacts Cognitive Performance and Focus – National Sleep Foundation. Accessed February 22, 2019.

4. Phillips AJK, Clerx WM, O’Brien CS, et al. Irregular sleep/wake patterns are associated with poorer academic performance and delayed circadian and sleep/wake timing. Sci Rep. 2017;7(1):3216. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-03171-4

5. Walker MP, Stickgold R. Sleep-dependent learning and memory consolidation. Neuron. 2004;44(1):121-133. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2004.08.031

6. Payne JD, Tucker MA, Ellenbogen JM, et al. Memory for Semantically Related and Unrelated Declarative Information: The Benefit of Sleep, the Cost of Wake. Mazza M, ed. PLoS One. 2012;7(3):e33079. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033079

7. Alhola P, Polo-Kantola P. Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2007;3(5):553-567. Accessed February 22, 2019.

8. Lo JC, Ong JL, Leong RLF, Gooley JJ, Chee MWL. Cognitive Performance, Sleepiness, and Mood in Partially Sleep Deprived Adolescents: The Need for Sleep Study. Sleep. 2016;39(3):687-698. doi:10.5665/sleep.5552

9. Drake C, Roehrs T, Shambroom J, Roth T. Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed. J Clin Sleep Med. 2013;09(11):1195-1200. doi:10.5664/jcsm.3170

10. Jacqueline Baltz. Is Sleep Deprivation The New College Norm? | HuffPost. Huffington Post. Published 2017. Accessed February 22, 2019.

11. Mascetti GG. Unihemispheric sleep and asymmetrical sleep: behavioral, neurophysiological, and functional perspectives. Nat Sci Sleep. 2016;8:221-238. doi:10.2147/NSS.S71970

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