Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 11)

I’m now sure it’s the one-legged standing that’s improving my sleep. The new way of seeing faces in the morning doesn’t seem to matter. In case you want to try this, I’ve found that if I just raise one foot slightly I can stand one-legged much longer (about twice as long) than if I stand one-legged and pull the other foot behind me (stretching my leg muscles). I think this means the stretching pose is twice as effective per minute as the non-stretching pose; it produces the same effect in half the time.

It’s only been a few weeks, but my legs are already much stronger. Walking long distances (such as 4 miles) is easier and so is standing for long periods of time. My notions about exercise are changing, too. Before this, I thought of exercise having three types:

1. Strength. Exercise a muscle, it gets stronger. Benefits: stronger muscles can do more, look better.

2. Flexibility. Improved by stretching, e.g., yoga. Benefit: less chance of injury.

3. Aerobic. The Cooper idea. Improved by running, swimming, etc. Benefit: apparently reduces risk of heart attacks, perhaps reduces risk of other diseases. (Some people do it to lose weight, of course.) To measure aerobic fitness, The Cooper Institute stress-tested executives and found that those with better stress-test scores had lower mortality in the following years. Stress-test fitness was a better predictor of mortality than obesity — some people were “fit but fat”.

The one-legged standing seems to be a whole new category:

4. Soporific. When you stress a leg muscle a lot, presumably one or more chemicals are released that both (a) cause the muscle to grow (the well-known effect of exercise) and (b) cause you to sleep more deeply at night (the effect that interests me). In contrast to Types 1-3, there’s no need for the concept of fitness here because you don’t slowly go up and down in a measure of effectiveness (i.e., become more or less fit). Rather each day you are high or low on this measure, and the next day you start fresh. In contrast to Types 1-3, where the benefits accrue slowly (over weeks and months), the benefits are obvious the next morning (you feel better-rested) and the next day (you’re less tired). In contrast to Types 1-3, there is no connection with athletics (such as Olympic events). Conventional exercise is integral-like: It’s the sum over days that matters. Whereas this exercise is derivative-like: The benefits derive from doing a little more today than you did on previous days. The psychology is different, too. The benefits are so large relative to the cost that there’s no motivation problem. Deciding to do it is about as hard as deciding to pick up a $!0 bill. Deciding to do conventional exercise is a lot harder.


16 Replies to “Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 11)”

  1. “Soporific” — interesting.

    I was about to suggest that it’s really an offshoot of isometric exercise (as it seems to me that you’re really tensing opposing muscles against each other.) And this caused me to wonder if there isn’t something in the nature of isometric exercise, rather than standing, that helps sleep. ie, does it have to be standing? Could it just be isometrically exercising, say, your chest muscles by pressing your palms together hard and holding it for a while? Or holding a mid-pushup position (keeping your core solid) as long as you could?

  2. I’ve started doing the leg lift thing like you described. For the past few days I’ve awoken very well-rested and energized, for what it’s worth. I wonder what may cause this effect, but in the meantime I’m going to keep doing it. I really like the “Science in Action” series and hope you apply it to other topics.

  3. I wonder if there is a connection with the similar and proven benefits of Tai Chi Chuan? When you are doing Tai Chi correctly, you are slowly transferring your weight from one leg to the other, as if you were standing on each leg alternately.

  4. Tom, yeah, I don’t think the leg muscles are constructed differently than other muscles; they’re just larger. So that you get a larger dose of the crucial chemical per minute of exercise. I like your alternative suggestions because pretty soon my legs are going to be stronger than they need to be for any conceivable task and it might help to strengthen other parts of my body. It might take too long using other parts of the body but it’s worth a try.

  5. I wonder if you have to stand on one leg until you are tired – since I couldn’t make it. Being a dancer I could stand on one leg for hours, so maybe the effect does not work as well on me?
    On the other hand, I usually sleep very well and wake up early.
    I started a dancers workout every morning, which contains a lot of standing on one leg, but so far I noticed not much difference in my sleep.

  6. Great posts about your sleep and one-legged standing — I will definitely give this a try in a while. In the interim, here is a post I got today from another blog I like about fitness:

    It talks about one-armed push-ups, and one legged squats, which I mention because I have been looking into trying to improve my vertical leap to try and slam dunk a basketball — some research demonstrated that doing one-legged squats helps improve power more than two-legged squats, and they theorise that it is because of incorporating balance. Maybe a series of one-legged squats while balancing would trigger your better-sleep-oscillator still more quickly? Perhaps it is load-dependent? As with your wondering if you’ll get strong too quickly, you can ALWAYS challenge yourself with squats! Technique is important, you can often find good form on YouTube.

    if you are interested in more fitness ideas, there is an interesting group called CrossFit, who believe in functional fitness, and they have an interesting paper on their website about their definition of fitness which incorporates balance and other elements. It is well thought out. I found these leads through my research into so-called evolutionary health, intermittent fasting, etc.

    Great posting!

  7. MT, yes, one-legged squats, or just bending the standing leg, might be an improvement, in the sense of producing the same effect more quickly. I’ll try it sometime.

  8. I had stuff I needed to do yesterday when I thought about standing on one leg, so I hopped around. In total I only stood on each leg for a few minutes, but the hopping shortened the time it took to become hard to continue.

  9. On why one-leg standing works, here’s one hypothesis to consider:
    Standing on one leg creates asymmetrical loading forcing our body to engage more of the fine-control muscles and more neurons (firing) to maintain balance. Of course, these fine muscles tire out very easily – you can tell by the lactic acid burn which incidentally also signals the body to produce growth hormone.
    This acute but brief stress will force your brain to enter deep sleep to absorb the lesson.
    I think Tai Chi works for me (like Charles suggest) – probably because of the very slow and deliberate movements with absolute body control (& concentration).
    Can we test this hypothesis by standing on one leg with our eyes closed to intensify the experience? My limit on a good day is 20-40 seconds after some refinements to fine-tune the body posture.

  10. > I’ve found that if I just raise one foot slightly I can stand one-legged much longer (about twice as long) than if I stand one-legged and pull the other foot behind me (stretching my leg muscles).

    Do you mean keeping both foot on the floor but raising one a bit so the load is put on the other one?. Thanks.

  11. A brief comment for Sam . . . the teachers in my Tai Chi group say that if the stances are getting easy, you need to sink lower. They tell a story about one of the best students working on Descending Single Whip (also known as Snake Creeps Down) with our master teacher. They were both at the lowest position and the teacher said, ‘OK, like all one-legged stances, you should be able to pick your other foot off the floor.’ Which he proceeded to demonstrate, while the student struggled. Perhaps one of your fellow dancers has studied Tai Chi and can show you this stance. It can also be found at 4:45 at And, by the way, while you’re in stance, stay relaxed. (One of our teachers taught a professional dance company; he said they were able to learn the stances and flow immediately, but could never relax.)

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