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Expert insight … James Connolly

This month we talk to sleep expert James Connolly about the importance of sleep, why he believes it holds the key to living optimally, and how we can all improve our bedtime routine.



Can you tell us a little bit about what you do?

My name is James (JC) and I’m a personal trainer, nutrition advisor, Pilates instructor and an avid learner. I create training and nutrition plans for my clients, and help them to identify and overcome barriers across all aspects of their lives. These barriers could reside anywhere in their environment – but sleep routines often play a big part.

What brought you to focus on sleep?

I’ve worked with many clients, including actors, models, CEOs, tech company founders and new mums. Despite their differences, a lack of sleep was the biggest weakness for all of them, and the main catalyst for burning out or falling off the wagon. This prompted me to look deeper into the subject.

As I began to realise how many issues start and end with sleep, I decided to dedicate as much attention to it as I do to eating and training. Without enough sleep, your ability to concentrate, to make good food choices and to train optimally is destroyed.

Sleep has been a game changer for all of my clients. Not only for their physical health, but every single one of them comments on how much better they’re able to perform in their jobs and daily lives.

Why is sleep so important for a healthy lifestyle?

Sleep is the first thing people forgo in search of optimal health – they’ll get up early to work out, without going to sleep earlier; yet the magic bullet they’re seeking is already in their grasp. It’s free, it’s easy – and it’s one of the most natural things imaginable!

For years we’ve neglected the importance of sleep in pursuit of greater achievements. Unfortunately, we assume we’ll be able to do more if we are awake for longer. In fact, the opposite can be true.

Sleep deprivation means we take longer to complete tasks, which often have poorer quality outcomes. Sleep affects our memory, learning, choices, energy, fat storage and mood, so sidelining sleep can be really detrimental to our overall wellbeing.

In fact, lack of sleep can be positively dangerous. An article in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine cites a number of studies linking traffic accidents around the world with driver fatigue. It suggests in the UK alone, 20% of all accidents, and up to a quarter of fatal or serious collisions, are due to tiredness.

It affects our mental health too. A study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found significant links between sleep deprivation and symptoms of anxiety and depression. This can start a vicious cycle, so the importance of sleep really can’t be overstated.

Students preparing for exams often forgo sleep in favour of more revision time – how could this affect their performance?

Research shows that swapping sleep for cramming is a terrible idea, with some students knowing or recalling less than they would have had they had adequate sleep.

Lack of sleep not only impacts attention, learning and recall, but it increases irritability which can be magnified under stressful circumstances like taking an exam. All of this together can jeopardise preparation.

I know it’s a cliché, but failing to prepare is preparing to fail, and students shouldn’t underestimate how long exam prep is going to take. Develop a study plan like you would a training plan – and start early. Chip away at it every morning or night (or both!), but don’t leave it until a week before exams and then attempt to pull five nights of back-to-back, four-hour sleeps. Figure out how many chapters you need to revise in total, identify where your biggest knowledge gaps are, and prioritise revision accordingly.

What would you recommend students do to improve their sleep?

The night before an exam, I’d highly recommend getting enough sleep, even if it’s simply just more time in bed resting. We know that sleep on the whole, especially consistent quality of sleep, helps us achieve our optimal state.

Develop a good bedtime routine. This might include some of the following ideas:

  • Write your ‘to-do’ list for the following day, so you can prioritise your efforts and hit the ground running.
  • Take a warm bath to wind-down about one hour before sleeping.
  • Try to get to bed at about the same time each night.
  • Read a book (not an e-book) or listen to a podcast to relax.
  • Make sure the room is as dark as possible and between 18 and 24 degrees. Remove as many electronic devices from your room as you can.
  • If you are easily woken and live under a flight path or on a busy street, you could also consider a white noise machine.

But if you change just one thing, make it your mobile phone usage before bed. Deloitte’s annual Mobile Consumer Survey found that among 16-19-year-olds, 66% check their phones in the middle of the night – and 26% respond to messages.

As Paul Lee, head of research for technology, media and telecoms at Deloitte commented: “Are we at the point at which smartphones have become almost too good for people to cope with, and if so, what remedies might be required? Interestingly, the steps that people are taking to control smartphone usage have a common theme: removing temptation.”

I couldn’t agree more – so utilise the Do Not Disturb and Airplane modes at night, or even better, just turn it off.

What’s the one thing you do every night to ensure you get a good night’s rest?

My wife and I have two non-negotiables when it comes to sleep. Firstly, we make the room as dark as possible. Secondly, we set our phones to Do Not Disturb mode one hour before sleep, and Airplane mode when we get into bed.

We aren’t huge supplement takers, but we always take magnesium before bed to help maintain healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep.

How would you describe the implementation of better sleep habits in three words?

Sleep more to live optimally. I know it’s five words but it drives home the point extremely well!

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