What to Do When Your Workouts Plateau

Here's yet another culprit of why your workout progress may be stymied.
Here's yet another culprit of why your workout progress may be stymied. (Diana Anderson Tyler )

I think one of the most challenging parts of leading a fit lifestyle has nothing to do with the tough sweat sessions and dietary discipline, but with our frustration when progress screeches to a halt.

After months of consistent improvements, from the way we look and feel to how much we can lift and squat, we often find ourselves face to face with a formidable plateau, and we wonder where we went astray.

In last week's post, I discussed Culprit No. 1 for dreaded run-ins with plateaus, which is subpar nutrition. This week, I'm going to shed some light on Culprit No. 2:

Subpar Sleep

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We all know that adequate sleep is a necessity. When we don't get enough of it, our stress levels shoot up, our muscles don't rebuild as well, our bodies have less time to recover from strenuous activity, we experience brain fog and irritability, and ... we get hungrier.

While you're sleeping, your body stabilizes two of the hormones that control hunger, ghrelin and leptin. Studies have shown a correlation between less sleep and reduced levels of leptin (appetite suppressant) and elevated levels of ghrelin (appetite stimulant).[1] Participants in one particular study who had their sleep restricted found themselves craving carbohydrate-rich foods, in particular. In other words, if you're not getting the recommended 7.5-9 hours of sleep per night, you could be setting yourself up for weight gain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 35 percent of people are sleep deprived. That's nearly the same statistic for obesity. Coincidence? I think not.

Research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that getting less than seven hours of sleep per night can undo the benefits of dieting. In the study, participants followed different sleep schedules. When they slept enough, half of the weight they lost was from fat. When they cut back on sleep, however, the amount of fat was cut by 50 percent, despite the fact they were on the same diet. In addition, the dieters felt significantly hungrier, were less satisfied after meals, and lacked energy to exercise.

We all know the feeling of a poor night's sleep. We're exhausted. Our heads hurt. Our limbs feel like lead. We're moody. And it turns out, our fat cells feel just as terrible.

University of Chicago researchers call our sleep-deprived state "metabolic grogginess."

Within just four days of sleep deprivation, your body's ability to use insulin properly gets disrupted; its sensitivity can drop by more than 30 percent! When your insulin is functioning correctly, fat cells remove fatty acids and lipids from your blood stream and prevent storage. When you become more insulin resistant, fats (lipids) circulate in your blood and pump out more insulin. This excess insulin eventually ends up storing fat in all the wrong places, such as your liver. The end result of this is obesity and diseases like diabetes.

Not only will a lack of sleep increase your appetite for not-so-healthy foods and upset our fat cells, it can also sabotage our workouts. Scientists from Brazil found that sleep debt decreases protein synthesis (your body's ability to make muscle), causes muscle loss, and can lead to a higher incidence of injuries.

The moral of today's scientific and hopefully eye-opening story is that there is a definite connection between sleep and weight gain. If you've noticed an inexplicable standstill in your fitness, it may be time to have an honest look at your sleep patterns. It could be that your ticket off the plateau is just a long, deep snooze away!

Here are a few quick tips for getting a better night's sleep:

  • Stop looking at all electronic screens (cellphone, laptop, TV and so forth) 30 minutes before bed.
  • Use blackout curtains.
  • Take magnesium or rub topical magnesium lotion or oil on your legs before bedtime.
  • Take melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle and is often used to treat insomnia. Note, however, that melatonin isn't a sleeping pill. It simply signals to your body that evening is coming, so your body starts preparing for sleep. Use melatonin to help yourself adjust to a routine rather than relying on it as a sleep aid.
  • Use a good mattress. Consider the softness (or firmness) of your mattress. If you suffer from back pain, a soft mattress is likely to make things worse.

I hope you've found today's post helpful! Do you have any sleeping tips or suspect a lack of sleep is hindering your fitness? If so, leave a comment below or tweet me @dandersontyler.

Diana Anderson-Tyler is the author of Creation House's Fit for Faith: A Christian Woman's Guide to Total FitnessPerfect Fit: Weekly Wisdom and Workouts for Women of Faith and Fitness, and her latest book, Immeasurable: Diving into the Depths of God's Love. Her popular website can be found at dianadeadlifts.comand she is the owner and a coach at CrossFit 925.

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