Sleep, stress and creating sustainable behaviour with sleep expert Ben Pratt


Key Takeaways:

1. Sleep. Often underrated but one of the keys in dialling in behaviour change
2. Stress and hormones. Why chronic stress causes clients to reach for fast, fatty foods and how to reel it in.
3. Self-motivation and positive behaviour. Creating a consistent and positive change for clients to engage in behaviours and to do things that are good for them.

Podcast Summary

If you ask fitness educator Ben Pratt what the most underrated part of losing weight is, he would say sleep.

DTS Fitness Education Director of Education Ben McDonald speaks to sleep expert Pratt about why sleep is so important to getting lean and healthy (listen to the full podcast here).

“I look at how to best optimize someone’s health, and leanness comes as a byproduct,” says Pratt. “Too often we look at the smaller factors and forget the bigger picture. There are a range of factors and depending on this person’s lifestyle, habits, and behaviours, this will change their priorities.”

The big rocks to address in getting lean include diet, exercise, sleep and stress. However, while calorie expenditure and exercise are important, Pratt notes, trainers need to look at what are driving these behaviours and how to support these good behaviours to continually happen.

“Is it the calorie intake that’s causing obesity or is it other things that are driving the increase in calorie intake which is leading to obesity,” says Pratt. “Our appetite and our cravings are certainly a factor in how much we eat. If we don’t sustain eating habits that switch off appetite that switch off our brain, nervous system and hormones that we are satisfied and full, then we are going to seek more food on a regular basis.”

As a fitness professional, we need to consider why clients subconsciously eat more on a day-to-day basis and what behaviorally drivers are stimulated them to do so, adds Pratt.

#1) Sleep

A big problem usually associated with behaviour change is lack of sleep, explains Pratt. When looking at managing someone’s body weight, sleep is the first rock he looks at, followed by diet, stress, then exercise.

The current recommendations around the world for adults, of any age, should be getting a minimum of seven hours of sleep up to about nine hours as a maximum. As an expert in nocturnal behaviours, sleep is important because it impacts everyone daily on a 24 hour cycle.

A classic example is a client who doesn’t sleep well, whether it’s because they have kids, a busy day, they worked overtime, or anything else that affects their ability to turn off.

“They’ve had a bad night’s sleep and they wake up pretty jaded the next day. There’s good research that shows this will change the hormones in their body,” says Pratt. “This will drive up their hormone ghrelin, which is the hunger hormone, which makes us seek more rewarding foods that are high in calories such as sugary and fatty foods. It also lowers our leptin levels, which tells our body that we are satisfied.”

In short, a bad night’s sleep results in ghrelin going up and leptin dropping, which equals higher levels of cravings and a physiological drive to eat more. On average, one night of partial sleep deprivation will increase a regular person’s calorie intake 300-400 calories the next day, typically from those poorer quality foods.

“If someone’s sleep is dialed in, then their appetite is dialled in then they’re going to feel more restored, they’re going to recover faster and more readily so their body is in a better place the following day or the day after,” he says. From there, trainers can look at diet, stress then exercise.

Though trainers do look at hormone changes, what causes the hormone changes, he adds. In most cases, it was the lack of sleep.

#2) Stress

Another big trigger that will affect hormonal balance is chronic stress.

A normal stress hormone cycle across a 24-hour day starts with stress at its highest in the morning and gradually drops down throughout the day. It should be the lowest in one’s first one-three hours of sleep. That same stress hormone will rise again in the morning to wake people up.

“In the early morning our stress hormones are the highest, not to make us feel stressed, but to release the necessary hormones. Cortisol helps release glucose and fats into the system to help us face the new day with vigour,” explains Pratt. “However, if many people are feeling stressed all the time, they will find that their hormonal balance isn’t like that. They will wake up in the morning feeling very fatigued, probably need a coffee to get going or something with a big caffeine kick because their cortisol is sluggish in the morning.”

As a result of the fatigue, the body will want to either eat something to put energy into it, or go back to sleep to restore the body. Recent studies show people are seeking processed carbohydrate foods or fattie foods. Low cortisol levels in the morning means the body isn’t getting the natural boost of glucose to keep it going.

Ultimately, these behaviours underpin the ability to do good exercise. Lack of sleep, a stressful job, and trying to train will increase one’s appetite unless they are extremely mindful and exercise significant willpower to not eat more.

“If we’re not sleeping right, if we’re eating crap and we’re stressed to the hilt, exercise can break you. It can push you over and break your body,” he says. “The reality is we need to learn to work with the biological system and not fight against it all the time. When we learn what drives people, we can manage those behaviours in a more manageable productive way that just isn’t about will power.”

#3) Encourage positive behaviour and motivation

Rather than telling a client what they should do and how they should act, a trainer’s role is to support an individual explore their motivations and what goals will work for them at this stage.

“You won’t get a lot of buy in when you say you need to do this and this and this in order to get your results,” says Pratt. “I would rather talk and negotiate with the client options based on analysis of their needs, where they’re at, here’s point A and point B. These are the different routes you can take to get there, which one works for you.”

Regardless of motivation, as trainers we need to dispel the myth of an easy fix and enforce consistency of creating a lifestyle of long-term health.

“We don’t want this up and down level, it’s much more effective to have slow and steady progress because the person will feel like they’re moving constantly in the right direction,” adds Pratt. “This is more rewarding emotionally and behaviorally, than it is to constantly fall back two steps and slip and make errors.”

Ultimately, clients need to engage in behaviours and to do things that are good for them, and sometimes it’s not always about being in the gym every single morning and being super happy go-lucky.

“Sometimes you’re dragging yourself to the gym in the morning,” chuckles Pratt. “The driver isn’t that I’m going to look good, but rather once I finish I’m going to get that boost of endorphins and I’m going to feel better.”

This concept is also applied to sleep, to managing stress load, to managing diets, to managing exercise. When a person learns to love the behaviours that lead to good health and well-being, leanness will come as a byproduct, and it is easier to sustain.

“Sometimes you need a bit of will power to initiate a behaviour, but the behaviour itself should reflect back a real positive feeling so we then don’t have to work so hard at doing it the next time,” concludes Pratt. “Each time we do this, we learn, by doing this, I feel better and that becomes a sustainable behaviour.”

Resources and References from the Podcast

Ben Pratt is the Programme Coordinator for the leading online training provider, Nordic Fitness Education. He has actively worked in the fitness industry since 1995 and within the field of fitness education as a tutor and international presenter since 2003. Alongside numerous vocational fitness certifications, Ben’s formal qualifications include a BSc in Sports Science, and a MSc in Holistic Nutrition. Ben is the author of more than 15 health, fitness and nutrition certifications, the most recent of which is the Sleep Recovery Specialist online certification that offers fitness professionals an exciting niche to support clients achieve their goals.

Course information page:

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