It sees you when you’re sleeping …

By MarthaFitat55

Last winter, I acquired a FitBit. I’m not the world’s best tracker of anything, but I was intrigued after I bought one for my husband and saw how easy it was to monitor different things.

I had originally seen the FitBit as a supersize pedometer, but in the almost eleven months that I have had, I have learned a lot.

The first thing I found out was how little I actually moved during my work day. I work from home, so I am always going up and downstairs. I assumed this was making me less of a sedentary person, but I was wrong.

It’s been a real process to reach my 10,000 steps a day as recommended. When I first started tracking, I averaged between 2500 and 3000 steps a day. When I went on my trail walks though, hitting 10K was no problem at all.

I’ve been making a conscious effort to move more, by taking more frequent breaks. The Pomodoro technique helps, and I use a nifty online program called to help me.

On a recent holiday to London, England, I averaged 15K a day, and I earned a couple of cool awards when I reached 20K and 25K in steps. Sadly I am not one of those people who can walk and work (unless it is a walking meeting). A treadmill or stand up desk is not for me, but the good news is that the Fitbit made me aware of how little I was moving, so now I do more (especially when on holiday!).

Now I lay me down to sleep

The second thing that intrigued me was the sleep tracker. Now I have always been a reasonably good sleeper. In fact, when my son was small, he said my superpower was that I could sleep anywhere, anytime.

And it is true. Need a catnap to reenergize? I can curl up with the best kitties and get 40 winks. On a long haul flight with either a hideously early start or a horrible arrival? I plug in my earbuds and off I go to noddyland.

So you can imagine what a horrible shock it was to learn from FitBit that I was a restless sleeper. The Fitbit registers when you turn over, and I do that a lot. I flip almost every 20 minutes, but I rarely wake up as a result. The panic set in when I accidentally set the sleep mode to sensitive. It was a sea of red lines.


After I realized that flipping was a normal part of my sleep habit, I turned my attention to how much I actually slept. Over the last few months, I have reset my bed time so I am hitting the pillow an hour earlier than usual.

I notice the quality of sleep has shifted too. When I recently had a hard week ,which resulted in extremely late bedtimes, I noticed the difference within 48 hours. My productivity was low, my attention span was shorter, my mood was crankier, and my desire for long, long naps overwhelmed me in the afternoons.

I could also clearly see the change in quality as monitored by my FitBit. Not only was I not sleeping as much, but the kind of sleep I was getting mimicked my earlier stint on the sensitive mode. Except this time I was in average monitoring mode.

Measure what matters


The fact is the FitBit allows me to measure better. While I support intuitive knowledge, if you really want to make lasting changes, you need evidence, and the FitBit offers it in spades.

Some people feel it is a little creepy, but since I only send the information to myself and don’t participate in challenges with anyone else, I am not too inclined to worry.

I like the reminders I can set, especially on drinking water. I haven’t ventured too far into the food tracker because I am pretty hopeless on that front. (What has been working has been taking pictures of my meals. After a week of that activity, I could see where I needed to change (eat more greens!) and where I needed to cut back (eat less white food!).

Incidentally I have the Flex, which is about as basic as you can get. Right now it is enough for me. I think if you are just starting into tracking lifestyle habits with a view to a change, this might be the way to go.

— Martha is a writer living in St. John’s documenting a continuing journey of making fitness and work-life balance part of her everyday lifestyle.


Children and Changing Sleep Patterns, or Confessions of a Former Morning Person

I used to be a morning person.

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When I was riding and racing my bike in an organized fashion, I even had alarms that began with 4. Why? Because I rode to the start of training, which started at 6 am, and it was 20 km away, and I had to have breakfast first. Ditto when I swam with the triathlon club at the university. I had to be on the pool deck at 6 am ready to go. But again I was riding my bike to campus first and then there’s breakfast and so the need for an alarm before 5 am.

And while some days that involved snoozing the alarm clock, or hoping for rain, most days I was okay with it.

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When your life is like that you go to bed at 9 and you’re asleep, for sure, by 10 pm.

Now part of the reason that worked was that years of parenting small children had me wired for early rising. There’s no sleeping in with toddlers. And even slightly older children have morning activities that require parents getting out of bed quite early. I’m still the person in the house who wakes up first, makes coffee, and who yells at, pokes, and prods others to get them to work and school on time.

There was a golden period of parental sleep. That was when the kids first started sleeping in and my partner and I were still on the early rising schedule. We could get up, ride our bikes and be home before they were even awake. That felt like stolen time. Of course the reason it worked is that they weren’t going out at night. The teens stayed up late but they stayed up late playing games or watching movies at home. That didn’t last and it was followed by the years of night time worrying.

If you’re a regular reader you know I don’t have small children any more. There are large dependent adults sharing my house, all over the age of 18. And this fall for the first time, just one them.The other two are off at college, setting their own alarms, and making their own coffee.

The remaining teenager at home is 18. He’s out late a lot. He works late too. He goes to the gym in the evenings. And I don’t sleep very well these days. Partly because I worry. I’m practically a professional worrier. But also because there’s lots going on in my life and in the world that’s affecting my sleep.

So I’m now an evening exerciser. Like him. It’s a bit of an adjustment.

My emerging schedule seems to be in bed by eleven, alarm set for 7. My day begins with coffee and dog walking. More formal sorts of exercise happens at night. I’m going to the gym to lift weights tonight at 7 pm.

I’m not sure where I’ll land once there aren’t any kids living at home. My schedule so far has been driven by other people. I’m curious whether I’ll revert to my preference for very early morning exercise. For now though, I’m going with the flow and working out at night.

You? When’s your best time of day to fit fitness in?

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Sleep and health messaging!


Image result for sleep quotesI’ve been thinking about health promotion and identity lately. See my posts on gender and sunscreen (Men, gender roles, and skin cancer risk), as well as on women and wine (see Women, wine, and the gendered marketing of alcohol.)

On the one hand, we might want to change the world and undo lots of the damage caused by gender roles. On the other hand. we want to save lives. Maybe when we’re out to promote health we do best with existing identities and motivations.

What got me thinking about this this week were two very different headlines about sleep in my newsfeed, obviously aimed at different demographics. The first, Go to Bed to Find Your Six Pack  is about the role of sleep in body fat reduction. It looks to be aimed pretty squarely at my son, for example. There’s no other argument about lack of sleep that would work, I think. It’s not that the fat reduction claims aren’t true. But do you lead with them?

(An actually, an aside: I do worry about health tips that rely on weight loss as a motivation, particularly for exercise. Suppose you don’t lose weight–that’s the most likely outcome–and you stop exercising. But it’s good for all sorts of things besides weight loss….)

Surprisingly, though, as a nutritionist who works with a lot of athletes, Mohning considers neither nutrition nor exercise to be the prime weapons in the fight against a tubby tummy. Instead, she points to sleep and stress.

“I would say Number 1 is sleep, Number 2 is stress, followed by nutrition and then exercise,” she says. “If you’re exhausted, it’s better to sleep the extra 30 to 40 minutes than to exercise.”

(The most effective anti-smoking ads for teenager girls, for example, don’t mention lung cancer. They mention your complexion as a smoker and the horror of wrinkles.)

This piece in After 50, called more sensibly and comprehensively The Risks of Insufficient Sleep, instead rtalks about cognitive decline, memory loss, and declining quality of life.

A small study published this March in Nature Neuroscience explored the relationship of poor-quality sleep with changes in the brain’s prefrontal cortex (where long-term memories are stored) associated with aging, which both led to reduced slow-wave activity during non-REM sleep.

Researchers concluded that the lack of deep sleep in older adults combined with these structural brain changes is linked to impaired memory and age-related cognitive decline but couldn’t establish a direct, causal connection.

All true. Sleep is super good for you. But different health messages reach different people.







Quick! Get me some placebo sleep!

I’m travelling a lot in other time zones these days,  Austria one week, Calgary the next, now Sweden and Scotland. It’s lovely really (though I do miss my bike) but crossing time zones makes sleep complicated. Not to mention Sweden’s lack of dark which made for sunset at 11 pm and sunrise at 4 am.  (But Sweden was good for exercise and aspirational bike rides.)

You might think–as my Samsung health app does–that I ought to track my sleep. It turns out you’re both wrong.

That’s because not getting a good night’s sleep is bad. Knowing about it is even worse.

And the converse is also true. Thinking you’ve got a good night’s sleep even when you didn’t turns out to improve performance on cognitive tests. See Placebo sleep improves cognitive skills.

If you can’t get real sleep, perhaps you can make up for it with placebo sleep. Or such is the suggestion of a new study that found that people did better on cognitive tests after being told that they got a high proportion of REM sleep, even if they didn’t.

It turns out that those who were told they got better sleep did better on a test of information processing speed called the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT), which involves adding many numbers together, as well as on a verbal fluency test called the Controlled Oral Word Association Task (COWAT). Those who were told they got lousy sleep did worse. The same relationship didn’t hold for self-reported sleep quality–those who thought they got better sleep didn’t generally do better on the PASAT than those who thought they hadn’t had a good night’s slumber.

Placebo effects are pretty powerful. Should you decide to take a drug for sleep issues most of the drug’s effects turn out to be placebo. And the strangest thing about placebo effects is that they work even if you know that it’s a placebo.

What’s interesting here is that when it comes to health and fitness more information isn’t always a good thing. Maybe what we need are sleep apps that lie to us, tell us we got a great night’s sleep even when we didn’t. If you decide to write the app and market it, please let me know.

And, while we’re on the subject of sleep, I’m still pining for a Jeeves alarm clock.


This is the alarm clock that faithfully reproduces the subtle wit employed by P. G. Wodehouse’s most famous character–the valet Reginald Jeeves–as he politely affirms the beginning of the day. The clock plays 126 different wake-up messages in the reserved voice of Stephen Fry, the original actor from the English comedy Jeeves and Wooster. When the alarm sounds, Jeeves speaks softly as he assuages your displeasure that the morning has indeed come: “Excuse me sir, I’m so sorry to disturb you, but it appears to be morning… Very inconvenient, I agree… I believe it is the rotation of the Earth that is to blame, sir,” or asks “Shall I inform the news agencies that you are about to rise, sir?” If you are not roused sufficiently, a series of beeps will ensue; a press of the clock’s rosette cancels the beeps, prompting Jeeves to interject “Sir has a firm touch, but fair” as one of ten possible snooze replies. A press of the rosette at bed time initiates a three-minute relaxation message with ambient music. Made of wood and handpainted in a subdued lacquer. A button on the back illuminates the clock’s face. 

Sleep and social privilege, or why rich white people like me should stop whining about how tired we all are

It’s the second week of daylight savings time and I don’t know about you, but my friends are all still talking about sleep. Mostly they’re all talking about how little they get. “Sleep is the new sex,” etc etc.

There’s also a lot of media attention because it’s World Sleep Day.

In an earlier blog post I argued that sleep is a feminist issue. Women get less sleep than men, even though there’s some evidence we actually need more. Why do we get less sleep? The answers are sadly familiar. They are the same reasons women also get less time for sports and other leisure activities. Women as a group shoulder a greater percentage of dependent care responsibilities and housework. It’s part of the larger picture of the unfair division of work in the home. Something had to give and that thing is sleep.

Being well rested it turns out tracks power and privilege. Surprised? I’m not really.

Men, on balance, get more sleep than women, on balance. (Of course some women get lots of sleep and some men get nearly none. It’s the big picture we’re talking about here.) But sex isn’t the only relevant factor when it comes to power and privilege. In the case of sleep it may not even be the most important one. Race and income matter too. Here’s a report on sleep and the numbers.

A study of the sleep characteristics of 669 middle-aged adults found that people sleep much less than they should, and even less than they think. Published in the July issue in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the study also found that blacks sleep less than whites, men sleep less than women, and the poor sleep less than the wealthy.

It’s not just a little bit less sleep either. Black Americans get a lot less sleep than white Americans. In fact, the difference in sleep quantity between the two groups may be enough to explain the difference in life expectancy between the two groups.

“The racial inequalities in the US are stark, but none are more damaging than the health gap between blacks and whites. On average, blacks die at a significantly younger age than whites.”

Here is a recent report on sleep differences between black and white Americans, Nobody Sleeps Better Than White People, Says Study

Thursday we learned something truly astonishing: White people, unburdened by racism, sleep pretty damn well.

According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 65 percent of Americans polled said they usually get at least seven hours of sleep per night, the benchmark recommendation. It’s self-reported data, not confirmed with any kind of tracking, but it’s fairly consistent with other estimates, the CDC says.

When the responses were broken down by race, they found that non-Hispanic whites had the highest rate of healthy sleep duration, at 66.8 percent. Close to 66 percent of Hispanics got seven-plus hours, as did 62.5 percent of Asians and 59.6 percent of Native Americans. Black people were at 54.2 percent, and multiracial people were at the bottom, with 53.6 percent. Overall, people who were employed and college-educated slept better, too.

Of course, most the media images of the underslept North American worker are of white, professional people. It’s reminding me of all the studies on stress which typically make their way into the media with images of men in suits attached. Stress is pictured as a disease of over achievers.


But the reality is quite different. Jobs that come without a lot of control are actually much more stressful. I’m reminded of my term serving as head of my academic department. Everyone asked if I found it stressful. The truth was that being in charge was much less stressful than being a regular colleague.

When I was a regular colleague I worried about decisions the Department Chair might make. When I was Chair, I didn’t worry about that all.

So as with stress, so goes sleep. It’s not the over-achieving powerful people who suffer the most. When it comes to sleep, black women get less sleep than white women and black men. It’s all about intersectionality. What’s that?

From the Geek Feminist Wiki, “Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.”

See also:

The Racial Inequality of Sleep

How Well You Sleep May Hinge on Race


Stress and slumber

My beloved was away for work this past week. We’ve slept in the same bed so long that when I sleep solo I need to build a pillow person to keep me company. Otherwise I find myself waking up with a start while groping around looking for my partner. 

Sleep is a funny thing for me. If I get horribly stressed I have trouble falling asleep and often wake up in the night. If I’m feeling moderately overwhelmed or lonely I’m very sleepy. 

Sticking to my routine while my partner is away helps me sleep better. I found myself heading to bed about an hour earlier than usual. I’m stil feeling a bit wooly headed from some congestion and I felt tired. It’s hard for me to know if that was just loneliness masquerading as fatigue or that I successfully fended off a nasty bug that’s been going around my office. 

It was very busy at my paid work and parenting my teenage sons seems to take a lot of emotional heavy lifting. I was thankful for the solid nights of sleep. 

I’m spinning indoors, walking to work and practicing yoga. I’ve also kept going for massages and Chiro appointments. Getting enough sleep has been a key part of my resilience to stress. 

I’m thankful of this period of quality sleep. What do you do to get your best night’s sleep when you are feeling stressed? 

no one knows what the pillow person did to me while I slept

Turns out even when I’ve had a good nights sleep I don’t really like mornings!


Sleep, no sleep, why, why? (guest post)

I woke up at 4 am, again. I sighed and clicked open my iPad to “read myself back to sleep.” Two hours later, I was an expert on the refugee situation in Germany and Sweden, and it was time to get up. This could have been any night in the past several years for me.

I wake up from these nights feeling like I’ve been scraped out and now I have to haul my empty flapping body around for the rest of the day. I kick myself into something resembling awake and feint my way through the day, revving on caffeine, sugar and the thought of bedtime. At least half the time, my intention to work out disappears, and then I repeat the cycle the next night.

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Apparently, when I was 7, this was not a problem.

I know there’s a mutually reinforcing loop between exercise and sleep, but it feels like the slightest tweak in the wrong direction and I can’t do either of them. We know that sleep deprivation depletes our physical and mental health, and most of us know what we’re supposed to do for good sleep hygiene. But in the “keeping myself fit” zone, sleep is the thing I have the least discipline about. I watch TV in bed before I fall asleep, read on my ipad, don’t do the mint tea/melatonin/quiet reading routine of settling myself down I know I should.  And I can’t quite figure out why that is.

I wanted to know if I was alone in this, so I conducted a mini research project earlier this week.  In two days I got back 19 detailed responses from my immediate circle — people have a lot to say about their sleep, it turns out. (“Sleep is the new sex,” said Sam.  “But you can talk about it!”).

I asked people to describe their last excellent sleep. It amazed me how many remembered specific episodes, and talked about them in detailed, poetic terms:  “It was with a special someone…”… “a month ago, on January 7…” “two years ago, after taking a long train…” “I had no commitments at all on the Sunday so I didn’t set my alarm. I had spent the day on Saturday writing and meditating and I got some yoga in as well.”…”I was at a meditation retreat and I slept on a mattress on the floor of the dining room and it was far away from a road and quiet.”…  “in Montreal five years ago, on a trip for a work conference and it was at a Sheraton hotel. I went out for dinner with friends, came back to the hotel room, drank wine in the bath and slept for 9 hours straight. It was magical.”

For about half of the people who responded to me, their “excellent sleep” memory was a time out of routine or away from home, an unfettered space where they could be completely unconstrained. And that liberation led to them being more fully themselves. I asked them to describe what it felt like to wake up after a good sleep:

…”Refreshed and grateful…” “Rested, awesome, energetic.” “Such a relief… my brain felt like it was fully on and I was able to accomplish more that day.” “My body wanted to stretch and I was gleeful that I had nothing to do except what I wanted to do”…”Waking up from a better than usual sleep feels luxurious, like I’ve spent a day at the spa, like I am all of myself.”

Sleep is essential to fitness and performance, according to Jackie Mccaffrey, a holistic nutritionist in Toronto, whose clients include athletes, dancers and performers, as well as people who just want to feel as healthy as possible. “When we’re sleep deprived, our body increases the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in order to give us energy.”

The people I spoke to all had a felt sense of the charmed loop between exercise and sleep, noticing that they tended to sleep better if they had exercised that day, and that sleeping badly made it hard to “drag themselves to the gym.” One mused, “I’m not fit right now and I’m certain this affects how deeply I sleep. I think the deeper I sleep, the better able I am to ignore the feeling of having to go to the bathroom and thirst… the vicious cycle.  Then I’m sure that feeling under-rested during the day adds to my disinterest in exercise.”

That cycle takes multiple forms. “Working out doesn’t necessarily translate into a good night’s sleep for me, but having a bad sleep can make for a horrible, worthless workout or competition,” said my friend who took up downhill ski racing in her early 50s.  “I have found it’s better to switch to a yoga class when sleep deprived, rather than sticking to a high intensity agenda.”

That strategy is a good one, according to Jackie.  “We need sleep for our muscles to recover from exercise through the release of Human Growth Hormone.  And not just sleep, but we need to achieve REM sleep.”

Most of the people I spoke to made a connection between sleep and what they eat.  “Everything in my body works better when I move it a lot and regularly, and when I nourish it like a monk,” said one.  Salt, sugar, caffeine, dark chocolate, insufficient protein, eating too close to bedtime and drinking any liquids after certain times were all mentioned as factors that influenced sleep, and almost everyone mentioned alcohol.

Everyone was also keenly aware that they shouldn’t be online, or watching tv in bed on a tablet, and that having our phones in bed is evil. But having the discipline to follow through is difficult.  “Most of all I should not use my phone in bed. But that’s not easy!” One mused, “do we have trouble sleeping because we’re on our phones, or are we on our phones because we can’t settle?”

Routine and mindful relaxation were also cited by many of the people I consulted. Strategies included going to bed at the same time every night, rain sounds, eyemasks, ear plugs, acupuncture, body scans, meditation, occasional sleep meds. Not stressing about not sleeping was a huge theme — trying not to look at the clock if you wake up, not lying there calculating how little sleep you have and how horrible the day will be.  One person said that he didn’t want his fitbit to tell him how badly he slept, because then he felt even worse.

So everyone has a sense of what they “should” do — and the shift to actually doing those things seems to take the same kind of wrenching discipline that any other fitness routine does. One of the things I noticed in the responses was how many people talked about staying up too late as time to themselves – time to drink wine, be alone, watch tv, be online. One person said “I’ve wondered sometimes if I get out of bed those 4 am mornings because I know there is some great basketball to watch.”

I think there are three lessons in this for me. First, we shouldn’t construct sleep as stealing time from something more fun or valuable — we need to value sleep for itself. (The most “successful” sleepers in my little study said this directly). We need to find the routine that works for us — something that lets us quiet our monkey minds, not wake up hungry, thirsty or poked by alcohol or caffeine, and just be in the recovery, feed-your-body space. And we need to have the mental discipline not to psych ourselves out on the nights that we don’t sleep well.  Apparently, research supports this — it’s better not to know if you don’t sleep well.

Tonight I start leaving the phone, computer and tablet in the kitchen and reading an actual book in bed, Amish style.  Maybe I’ll buy a flannel nightgown.