Lifestyle Area #3 -- Get Your Sleep!

A while back, I started a 3-part blog on the 3 key Lifestyle areas to achieve peak performance on the SATs/ACTs. In my first blog, I addressed Nutrition. In my second blog, I addressed Meditation. In this blog, I address SLEEP. These three elements are the foundations for a balanced, healthy lifestyle that lead to peak performance in testing and other life events.


Everyone needs sleep to function properly. An adult needs between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night, while teenagers need between 9 and 10 hours. That’s right…teenagers actually need more sleep than adults. But I can attest that the majority of the students who I tutor are sleep-deprived and receive nowhere near this recommended number of hours of sleep.

Sleep is vital because it is an active process in which the brain works to heal the body by producing hormones that are beneficial for repair and growth. Sleep is also the time for the brain to consolidate memories of what has been studied and learned that day. In short, new knowledge is integrated into a person’s existing knowledge base while he sleeps. Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM sleep) happens in the last part of the night sleep and is associated with the important functions of learning and memory. This is why ensuring adequate REM sleep is so important prior to major tests.

Many students don’t understand the importance of sleep and what they lose out on when they deprive themselves of it. Many believe that it is wise to stay up the night before a big exam (like the SAT or ACT) to study late, rather than going to bed early to get at least 8 hours of sleep. However, research has consistently shown that taking the time to sleep before an exam will benefit your test score more than four or five hours of staying awake staring at notes that you probably will not remember. In fact, the National Institutes of Health found sleep-deprived students have lower GPA’s and lower test scores because that lack of sleep impairs memory and concentration.


In a study conducted by the Paula Alhola and Päivi Polo-Kantola, members of the NeuroPsychiatric Disease and Treatment Center in the University of Turku (Finland) found that sleep deprivation impairs visuo-motor performance, which is measured with tasks of digit symbol substitution, letter cancellation, trail-making or maze tracing. Visual tasks are especially vulnerable to sleep loss because iconic memory has short duration and limited capacity. Sleep deprivation also increases rigid thinking, perseveration errors, and difficulties in utilizing new information in complex tasks that require innovative decision-making. Deterioration in decision-making also appears as more erratic performance on a variety of tasks (tests included!). In the U. of Turku study, motor function, rhythm, receptive and expressive speech, and memory deteriorated after just one night of sleep deprivation.


So we now understand just how important sleep is in achieving peak SAT-ACT performance. Even when a student is somewhat sleep-deprived in general, making sure that she gets at least 8 – 9 hours of sleep at least two nights in a row before a big test will make a difference. How can teenagers achieve this goal of at least 8 hours of sleep a night? Here are some tips:

• Turn Electronics Off: Make a commitment to turn off all electronics 30 minutes before bed. Blue light emitted from computers, smart phones, and tablets hurts natural sleep processes.

•Eight -- Yes, Eight Hours: Set a routine and commit to getting at least 8 hours of sleep, but preferably more when possible. • Smart Snacking: If you have to stay awake to study, try low-calorie non-caffeinated foods like sunflower seeds. Snacking will keep you awake but will not interrupt sleep when you are ready to snooze.

• Say No to Stimulants: From caffeine to energy drinks, stimulants -- both legal and illegal-- have been shown to impact sleep, and that will impact your ability to remember what you just stayed up late to learn.

• Remember to REM: If you have to stay awake before an exam, get at least 6 hours of sleep the night before. This will allow you to get at least some amount of REM sleep, which occurs later in the night and helps consolidate your memories.

• Limit Naps: If you nap during the day, keep it to 30 minutes or less. You are better off studying during this time and sleeping later in the night.

• Exercise Consistently: Exercise helps students in two ways -- making you more alert when it's time to study and helping you to relax when it's time to fall asleep.

Ultimately, ignoring the need for sleep leads to lower grades, decreased productivity, and lower standardized test scores. However, making a commitment to sleep will lead to a lifetime of learning and health with much less effort and time!


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