You wake up early trying to skip traffic, working an average of 9 hours a day. You get home tired, but you can’t afford to rest because there’s chores to do at home. Okay, you’re finished with everything you absolutely needed to do. You’re beat, but you still want to catch your favorite show, check what’s going on online or maybe hit the town and meet some friends. By the time you’re finally in bed and asleep, you’re looking at about 5 hours’ worth of sleep and then you’re back to the same daily routine. It’s fine, though, you’ll catch up on all of those missing hours of sleep over the weekend, no?
No, it’s not fine, because sleep doesn’t work like that. The hours of sleep you lose over the week cannot be compensated for by sleeping at a later date. For the past four decades, 40% of Americans have been getting less sleep on a daily basis than the recommended 7-9 hours for an adult of up to 64 years.
A new study looked at the consequence of this sparse sleep cycle and the effectiveness of “catching up” on sleep over the weekend. For the purpose of the test, a group of young adults were assigned to three groups: a control group that got 9 hours of sleep, a group that got 5 hours of sleep all week long, and a third group that got 5 hours of sleep with sleep compensation over the weekend.
In both sleep-deprived groups, the researchers found an increased tendency to snack, especially on empty-carb foods which give a short-term energy surge, both groups subsequently demonstrated weight-gain and a decreased insulin sensitivity, which may trigger diabetes if left untreated. The group that slept over the weekend saw minor improvements during the weekend (and only on those days), but were still far behind those who slept the recommended amount of hours on a daily basis.
So why do we do this to ourselves?
In his autobiography (published posthumously in 1791), Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote these words about sleep: “there will be sleeping enough in the grave.”
Franklin was a firm believer in industriousness, and thought that any hour spent not being busy with something useful was an hour gone to waste. His work ethic has become a legend, a staple of American exceptionalism, but his disdain for a good night’s sleep has gone largely uncriticized.
When Robert Owen, Welsh labor rights activist said: “eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” that was certainly an improvement over the working schedule of industry workers in the early 19th century, who regularly worked 12-hour shifts with no vacations.
But even if we were to assume that 40 hours of work on a weekly basis is the right amount of work in terms of balancing productivity, rest and recreation (consider the fact that many of our supposedly recreational hours are spent on what amounts to unpaid work doing chores), according to a 2014 Gallup poll, the average American works 47 hours a week, with as many as 39% reporting working 50-60 hours per week! This is often not a matter of choice, as many employers seem to expect workers to punch in more hours than required.
On top of a tendency to overwork comes a more modern malady: fear of missing out (or FOMO), a social anxiety characterized by a constant desire to be connected and in the know about what others are doing, as well as a concern that you’re missing out on an opportunity (not necessarily financial, as an opportunity for a social interaction also qualifies).
It was first identified by a marketing strategist in the mid-90’s, and it has only gotten more widespread as social media has become more commonplace and readily accessible via mobile phones. In the past few years, it has only gotten worse, as people feel a constant social itch that can only be alleviated by grabbing their smartphone and browsing through Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
The end-result is that a huge chunk of Americans work well over 8 hours a day while trying to extend recreational time as much as possible at the expense of valuable sleeping hours, leading to a plethora of health issues, a cycle which will not be broken unless we rethink our weekly schedule in a major way.