A late-night lifestyle can come with health problems. New research says it's easier to switch than you'd think.

Getting a good night’s sleep is vital for your health, both mental and physical; that much seems obvious. But what exactly is “good”? How much sleep do we need? When? Under what circumstances? Just for example: a 2010 review of sleep studies found health risks to both not getting enough sleep, and getting too much sleep. Then there are all the myths and conflicting reports out there. Worrying about sleep is enough to, well, keep you up all night.

bedroom with nightstand, wall, pillows, lamp

For many of us, our biggest sleep problem is scheduling: we stay up too late. Staying up late is associated with all kinds of health issues: eating too much, depression, and heart disease, among others. Often staying up late doesn’t result in an equally later wake-up time, so night owls simply get less sleep. But a new study finds that you can fix your night owl habits, if you want.

The study involved 22 healthy people who identified as night owls: their average bedtime was 2:30 a.m. and average wake-up time was 10:15 a.m. That’s nearly eight hours of sleep, which means that these subjects weren’t really sleep-deprived. Instead, they simply stayed up late. The researchers gave these subjects a new sleep pattern to stick to, and measured their physical and cognitive strength in the morning, asked them about their diet and mental well-being, and tried to find out when they were at their best, physically and mentally.

That pattern: Go to bed 2-3 hours earlier than normal, and keep exposure to light at a minimum in the evening. Wake up 2-3 hours earlier, maximizing sunlight in the mornings. Eat breakfast as soon as you wake up, eat lunch at the same time every day, and eat dinner before 7:00 p.m. Oh, and do this every day—not just work days.

The results were pretty astounding. The former night owls showed better cognitive and physical strength, measured through memory tests and a grip tester, in the mornings. They reported less stress and depression, actually ate breakfast, and found that their strongest part of the day was in the afternoons, rather than the evenings.

The great thing about this study is that you can easily replicate it at home. (These tips for falling asleep might help.) No expensive equipment needed, no wild experimental changes to your life. The changes might even seem minor, if annoying at first. But shifting your sleep schedule to include more sunlight, breakfast, and being awake when everyone else is also awake—the benefits are clear.


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