How to Be Healthy Series Get Enough Sleep and Water

This is part 3 in the How to Be Healthy series. Read part 1 on eating real food and part 2 on making exercise a habit.

The Internet is filled with advice on how to be healthy. Some of it is true, a lot of it isn’t. Most of it ignores the core components of physical health in favor of recommending the latest “super” food or juice “cleanse”. These aren’t the tried and true methods that have allowed people to lead healthy lives for decades.

I’ll give it to you straight. If you want to be healthy, focus on building these habits: eating real food, exercising consistently, and getting enough sleep.

The last major components to physical health are sleep and water intake. While changing your diet or starting to exercise can be pretty involved, incorporating more rest and water into your day is straightforward. It just requires willingness and some planning.

Proper eating, exercising, and sleeping are helpful on their own, but our body is a system. These activities work together to benefit the whole, all the while making each other easier. For example, drinking water before meals helps you lose weight. Proper nutrition gives you the energy and capacity to exercise. Regular exercise helps you “sleep significantly better and feel more alert,” according to a 2006 study. And we need sleep to rest from the day and prepare our bodies to do it all over again the next day.

Sleep — let’s start there. If you’re missing out on 7-9 hours, you’re simply not functioning at your highest level. We all live busy lives, but just because we’re awake for more hours doesn’t mean we’re actually getting more done.

Everyone’s sleep needs are unique, but there is an age-based recommendation for the amount of shut-eye you should get.

Age group Average Amount Needed
Newborns (0-3 months) 14-17 hours
Infants (4-11 months) 12-15 hours
Toddlers (1-2 years) 11-14 hours
Preschoolers (3-5) 10-13 hours
School age children (6-13) 9-11 hours
Teenagers (14-17) 8-10 hours
18-25 7-9 hours
26-64 7-9 hours
65+ 7-8 hours

Source: National Sleep Foundation

Getting more and better sleep is easier than you think. It starts with creating morning and nighttime routines that are conducive to a good night of rest.

3 steps to better sleep

1. Night routine / Ditch your device

When you look at your phone’s screen, you’re essentially looking at a bunch of tiny lights shining into your eyeballs. Staring at screens before bed confuses the body’s circadian rhythm into thinking it’s still daytime. Even if your phone or laptop has a blue light filter, there’s evidence that reducing blue light alone isn’t enough to stop the effects of screens. In any case, it’s best to avoid screens an hour before bed to get your body ready for sleep.

Instead of looking at a screen before bed, try reading a book. Some people say they need to watch a TV show or videos to help them fall asleep, but I’ve found that reading (especially non-fiction) makes me tired more quickly and is a less mindless way to wind down from the day.

2. Wake up when your body is ready

Do you have a frustrating relationship with the snooze button? Does it feel unnatural to be woken up when your body isn’t finished sleeping? It’s time to train your body to wake up when it’s ready to.

During sleep, our bodies go through different stages of brain activity, each of which last about 90 minutes. Our minds are most awake at the beginning and end of these cycles.

Sleep Graph Example
The sleep graph for one of my average nights

Regular alarms can leave you groggy because they wake you up at a set time, even if you’re still in deep sleep (REM cycle). A better approach is to use a smart alarm that wakes you up at your lightest stage of sleep within a timeframe you set. Set an interval to wake up in (say between 7 and 7:30 a.m.) and it’ll wake you up when your body’s most ready within that window of time.

These smart alarms are found in many new fitness wearables as well as in the form of an app. I use an app called Sleep Cycle (free on iOS, $0.99 on Android), which can use either your phone’s movement sensors or microphone to gauge how much you’re moving in your sleep and thus what stage of sleep you’re in.

3. Fix your morning routine

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Do you immediately check your messages, favorite apps, and emails? How long do you spend in bed just staring at your phone before beginning the day?

The mornings that I don’t check my phone and just get up and going are almost always the better mornings. Stretching, preparing a healthy, tasty breakfast, reading a book — these all make mornings more enjoyable. Whatever it is, find something that gets you excited to get out of bed and start the day.

Water you talking about?

It could take some time to turn around your sleep habits, but there’s something easy you can start right now that will impact your health in a big way: go drink some water. Giving your body enough water — the common recommendation is 64 ounces (eight 8-ounce glasses) — each day can help you:

Listen to your body and pay attention to when you’re thirsty. If you’re exercising regularly, you’ll especially need to keep your water intake high to replace water lost through sweat. And contrary to popular belief, caffeinated, water-based drinks like coffee and tea can contribute to staying hydrated (though you should still avoid sugary drinks).

Substitute soda and energy drinks for water

Series Wrap-up

After reading about eating real food, making exercise a habit, and getting enough sleep and water, I hope you have a better idea of what’s involved in a healthy lifestyle. It requires you to work hard and force yourself to do things you’d rather not. The more I work at it, the more I find the benefits are worth it.