Sleep influences our demeanor, our choices and how others perceive us. It shapes our waking hours, leaving us alert, calm, focused and joyful—or tired, grumpy, distracted and unhappy.

That makes sleep a crucial concern for our harried clientele and for ourselves, as busy fitness professionals. We all try to sneak by without enough sleep, and we all pay the price for sleep deprivation. Read on for the latest research on sleep, plus how to bring up sleep in your clients’ sessions or at your business.

Sleeping in Stages

Research is uncovering the mystery of what happens during the four stages of sleep (Finkel 2018). One thing is clear: We need all of them, every night—just as we need fruits and vegetables, or cardio and strength training. We can get by without sleep occasionally, but losing sleep chronically has consequences.

The stages of sleep are unique and valuable. During the first half of the sleep night, there is more nREM (non-rapid-eye-movement) slow-wave sleep (stages 3 and 4), called deep sleep. During the second half of the sleep night, there is more REM (rapid-eye-movement) dreaming and lighter sleep. Sleep researcher Matthew Walker, PhD, says nREM is involved with memory storage, while REM is the dreaming sleep (known for hallucinations and paralysis) (Walker 2018).

A late bedtime and early alarm often minimize REM sleep, which has been linked to emotional health, problem-solving and creativity.

Sleep’s Impact on Wellness

The NSF and Sleep Health Foundation both recommend 7–9 hours of sleep for adults (ages 18–64), 7–8 hours for older adults (65+), 8–10 hours for teenagers (14–17) and 9–11 hours for children (6–13) (SHF 2015).

Getting people to sleep better aligns well with the mission of fitness professionals. We know how to plan, motivate and educate. And sleep research covers our core areas of focus: weight loss, performance enhancement and injury prevention, and behavior change.


Sleep may not directly help somebody lose weight, but lack of sleep affects food choices. “On a simplistic level, your appetite changes,” says Charles Samuels, medical director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, Alberta, in a report available on Lack of sleep alters levels of ghrelin, leptin and endocannabinoids, three appetite hormones (Fields 2016; Hanlon 2016). “We have very substantial research that shows if you shorten or disturb sleep, you increase your appetite for high-calorie-dense foods,” Samuels says (Fields 2016). Moreover, research suggests that sleep restriction can hinder weight management, a risk more people need to know about (St-Onge 2017).


Studies on basketball players have shown that getting enough sleep correlates with improved performance and fewer injuries (Walker 2018). In fact, research has shown that just one night of partial acute sleep loss can lead to elevated levels of cortisol, which can affect the resiliency of the stress response (Leproult et al. 1997).


In his book Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and YOU) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage With Life (Penguin 2016), Stuart Shanker points out that it’s tough to resist temptation when stress load is high. He shares stories about clients who made smoother health-related decisions after reducing stress. We all know it’s hard to sleep when stressed, so paying attention to this relationship is essential.

Meditation, mindfulness practices and even naps are emerging in our culture as ways to counteract the effects of our productivity-driven, overstimulated society. Working downtime and rest into the day is part of the sleep solution (Edlund 2010). We’ve got to stop pushing our way through the day, expecting to crash at night and wake rejuvenated in the morning.

Thankfully, stress reduction is an ongoing conversation in the fitness industry and an outcome of regular exercise. We need rest, sleep and recovery to complement exercise effectively.

Talking to Clients About Sleep

Health coaches and personal trainers are in an ideal position to influence sleep habits—especially since sleep needs are individual-specific, just like nutrition and exercise. There are many ways to get the sleep conversation going in the gym. Here are a few ideas:


  • Include questions about sleep on intake forms.
  • Investigate sleep habits during initial interviews.
  • Ask about sleep before personal training sessions.
  • Share sleep tips in group fitness classes.
  • Take polls on sleep with a show of hands in group fitness classes.
  • Administer tests like the Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS).
  • Guide people to complete a sleep journal (download a free journal at
  • Educate people and hold them accountable.


  • How many hours did you sleep last night?
  • What time did you get into bed and turn out the lights last night?
  • What time did you wake up today?
  • Did you wake up at all last night? For how long?
  • How rested do you feel on a scale of 1–10?
  • What is your stress level on a scale of 1–10?

As you investigate clients’ well-being, you may hear about sleep disorders such as snoring, restless legs syndrome, sleepwalking or insomnia. These are reasons to refer to a physician or sleep doctor. Over 100 diagnosable sleep disorders require medical attention.

For strategies for building healthy sleep habits, see “You Are How You Sleep: The Cost of Sleep Deprivation” in the online IDEA Library or in the April 2019 print edition of Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

Beverly Hosford, MA

I love anatomy! I have a skeleton named Andy who comes to all of my presentations and workshops with me. He has his own facebook page and you tube channel. "Ask Andy" I work with clients on injury prevention one to one and also small groups. I also do business coaching for fitness professionals to help them find better balance in their business and greater success.

Leave a Comment

When you buy something using the retail links in our content, we may earn a small commission. IDEA Health and Fitness Association does not accept money for editorial reviews. Read more about our Terms & Conditions and our Privacy Policy.