Research shows that people who wake up early are happier, healthier and more productive than so-called night owls. But if getting up in the morning doesn’t come naturally to you, how can you train yourself to become one of life’s larks? Health writer Anna Magee investigates.
Sir Richard Branson wakes at 5am to exercise and read news, Apple CEO Tim Cook rises at 4am to read email, Michelle Obama is up at 4.30am to work out and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey gets out of bed at 5.30am to meditate and go running. Does it make you feel tired just reading that? It isn’t even an exhaustive list of the successful people who also happen to be early risers.
People who wake up earlier are not only more proactive,a University of Toronto study found that they also lead happier and healthier lives. ‘Those who wake earlier are more likely to make healthy choices in terms of eating a healthy breakfast, exercising and getting fresh air,’ says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep expert and author of The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep. This, over time, turns into a healthy cycle. ‘Early risers tend to establish better sleep habits because they tend to go sleep earlier and, ultimately, that can create a pattern that is more conducive to higher quality sleep, better lifestyle habits and higher productivity.’
You can become a morning person — yes, really
If you think you’re a night person and that’s that, then think again.
Research on sleep chronotypes (which refers to whether we are basically morning people or ‘larks’, night people or ‘owls’) shows that only a small proportion of people are true larks or owls. ‘The majority of us fall somewhere in between,’ says Dr Ramlakhan. ‘Most people can adjust their sleep chronotype one way or the other, with a few positive lifestyle changes.’
You might think you’re a night owl but that could be the result of your lifestyle habits. Catch-up TV, Netflix binges and high use of screen technology can delay our sleep phases, setting our body clocks later, Dr Ramlakhan explains. ‘Once we reset that pattern with positive lifestyle changes that favour morning energy, people who think they’re night owls are surprised to find they get tired earlier, sleep earlier, wake up earlier and become more lark-like.’
Here’s how to start to be a morning person:
1. Exercise in the morning
‘Exercising in the morning can help adjust your circadian rhythms so that, over time, you may find your energy is higher in the morning and lower at night,’ says Dr Ramlakhan. According to Harvard research, exercising in the morning causes the brain to release brain chemicals that are key to mental sharpness, focus and concentration. Early-morning exercise can also help lower blood pressure and improve sleep, research has found.
2. Eat a protein breakfast
‘Protein helps your body access the brain biochemistry that gives you energy for longer during the day,’ says Dr Ramlakhan. A protein breakfast helps the body to make wellbeing hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin throughout the day, she says, which can add up to a calm, focused and stable mood.
Healthy protein breakfasts include Greek yogurt with berries, boiled or scrambled eggs on wholegrain toast or, if you can’t stomach too much food, a handful of almonds and two dates to give the body some protein fuel and kick-start your metabolism.
3. Flood yourself in daylight
Light affects our ‘body clocks’ or circadian rhythms by suppressing the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. Harness this by getting outside during daylight hours as much as you can but for at least 30 minutes either in the morning or at lunchtime. ‘Going outside, even on a cloudy day for 30 minutes, will give you the light you need but even sitting in a bright sunlit room can have a similar effect,’ says Dr Ramlakhan. ‘In the summer, try sleeping with the curtains open so that you can be woken by natural light. All that contributes to helping reset your circadian timer.’
4. Don’t nap — and if you must, nap smart
Sleeping during the day can interfere with quality sleep, and with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep – all keys to your new status as a shiny-new morning person. ‘But for people who are run down, getting over illness or going through emotional difficulties, there may be benefits to napping, as long as they do it smartly,’ says Dr Ramlakhan.
So, while going out for a brisk daytime walk in nature or doing 10 minutes’ breathing meditation is a better option to help energise you, if you want to nap, then make sure it’s for no longer than 20 minutes at some point between 2pm and 4pm. ‘That’s a power nap – any longer is a replacement nap and that will interfere with your sleep.’
5. Set your head right
‘Oversleeping can be as unhelpful as undersleeping,’ says Dr Ramlakhan. Finding the sweet spot of the perfect early wake-up time will be different for everyone. ‘Self-awareness is key, so a little trial and error will help you find the wake-up time that gives you enough sleep to feel rested and alert and enough extra time in the day to do more of the things that enrich your life,’ she says.
It’s crucial to go to sleep knowing that you are waking up early. Not that you might, or that you could, but that you are. ‘Make it non-negotiable and reward yourself for every day you achieved your daily goal to wake up earlier. Over time, that will become habit.’
To make it even stickier, link waking up early to a value, she suggests. ‘Ask yourself why you want to wake up early,’ she suggests. ‘What will you get out of it? How will you benefit? Write that down on a piece of paper and have it next to the bed.’
6. Now, set your alarm
‘Be strict with yourself about your wake-up time, even on the weekends,’ says Dr Ramlakhan. That means setting your alarm and ideally, putting it somewhere away from the bed, so you need to get up to make it stop (though partners might have something to say about this…) as pressing the snooze button can disrupt your sleep and make you feel worse.
‘Try and get an old-fashioned analogue alarm so you don’t have to sleep with your phone by the bed, otherwise the temptation to scroll is too high if you wake in the night and that can stimulate your senses and make going back to sleep harder.’
Has this whet your appetite for learning even more ways to improve your sleeping habits? Get another leg up in the sleep game by reading our article These Foods Are Guaranteed To Help You Sleep Better.
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