Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 13)

When I talk about how standing on one leg has helped me sleep better, the inevitable question is how much standing? After I became sure the standing was making a difference, I started to record the durations. I always stood on one leg until it became a little hard to continue. As my legs have become stronger, this has taken more time, as this graph shows:

During the early days on this graph, I didn’t include time-of-day information. I usually stood on one leg three or four times per day. More recently, I have included time-of-day info and now stand on one leg only twice most days. In all of the cases shown on the graph, I was pulling my other leg back behind me at the same time, stretching the muscles. (If I don’t stretch the other leg, I can stand one-legged much longer.) In the very beginning, I only stood one-legged 2-3 minutes.

I’m sleeping better than any other period in my adult life. My sleep was pretty good before this period but the difference is still huge. Not only am I sleeping better, I suspect I’m also sleeping less (as happened when I improved my sleep by standing a lot).

I suppose one-legged standing counts as “exercise” — that source of so many claimed benefits (longevity, weight loss, less heart disease, etc.). I read today that exercise is supposed to improve your brain. But the differences between what I am doing and what is usually recommended are as large as the difference between the Shangri-La Diet and other diets:

1. Conventional exercise: Requires expanse (for walking) or, usually, special equipment (e.g., gym). Takes one hour or more, when you count changing clothes and showering, not to mention the drive to and from the gym. One-legged standing: Can do almost anywhere. Takes less than 30 minutes, so far.

2. Conventional exercise: Requires discipline if you want a decent workout in a reasonable amount of time. One-legged standing: Almost no pain involved. I can watch TV or read something at the same time.

3. Conventional exercise: Supposed to be aerobic if you want the main benefits. One-legged standing: The opposite of aerobic.

3. Conventional exercise: Some benefits accrue slowly, such as weight loss. Others are hard or impossible to detect, such as longer life. Runners’ high goes away, in my experience. One-legged standing: Benefit clear the next morning. Because I am strengthening muscles I use all the time (when I walk or stand) I notice my vastly increased leg strength all the time.

4. Conventional exercise: You want to get stronger. One-legged standing: You don’t want to get too strong or else it may take too long to get the effect.

5. Conventional exercise: Often difficult to measure increased strength. Hard to measure improvement in swimming, racquetball, or aerobics classes, for example. One-legged standing: Easy to measure increased strength.

6. Conventional exercise: Helped me fall asleep faster, but didn’t solve the problem of too-light sleep. One-legged standing: Utterly solves the problem of too-light sleep.

Could the benefits of conventional exercise have anything to do with the fact that it vaguely resembles one-legged standing?


16 Replies to “Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 13)”

  1. Could the benefits of one-legged standing have anything to do with the fact that it vaguely resembles conventional exercise? It is hard to posit why either effect would occur evolutionarily since the necessity of sleep in that context is so vague itself. But exercise at least seems to be a biologically relevant activity–running around was probably a common activity during the Paleolithic era, while it is less probable that people were standing on one leg for no apparent reason for thirty minutes at a time. In all likelihood there is a third variable at play that is triggered by both standing on one leg and exercise.

    Not attempting to be critical, as I find the general effect fascinating, but that last sentence was iffy.

  2. With a set of two 15 or 20 pound dumbbells, I find that I can get an excellent workout in 30-45 minutes. Three times a week I do the following routine: pushups, situps, two shoulder exercises (shrugs and another involving holding the weight with both hands in front of my hips and bending my elbows to bring the weight straight up almost to my chin – can’t remember what these are called), triceps “curls”, and bicep curls. After these I do a few stretches to hit most major muscle groups in upper and lower body. After doing this three times a week for two weeks I noticed distinct improvements in sleep, and resting wakefulness (feeling calm and alert during waking hours). I also notice distinct improvements in my muscle tone and how good my upper body looks in a mirror (my wife always laughs at how I will pose in front of a mirror to admire the results).

    I have to admit that the leg exercises seem even simpler and perhaps I’ll give them a try. But the idea that exercise is expensive (e.g., gym membership, special equipment), difficult (requiring high motivation or difficult movements), and time consuming (I do a total of 90-115 minutes per week) are certainly necessarily true. I think a lot of people make things more difficult than need be, and perhaps the media has had a hand in portraying these myths about exercise.

  3. Andy, you write: “It is hard to posit why either effect would occur evolutionarily.” I think the evolutionary reason that one-legged standing improves sleep is pretty obvious: We sleep more when we need more time to grow muscles. Muscles are better grown when at rest than when being used, thus they are grown during sleep. This is why my one-legged standing causes both muscle growth (as the graph shows) and better sleep. And why I don’t think the sleep improvement is likely to occur when the muscle use isn’t extreme — isn’t extreme enough to cause growth.

    Aaron, thanks for the exercise details. I’m glad to hear about an exercise routine that’s easy to do at home.

  4. I don’t think the good-sleep effect from standing on one leg is a byproduct of exercise per se, because:

    1. Dose effect from standing for nine hours or more suggests biological trigger
    2. Many people exercise legs more but don’t report similar benefits
    3. Seth has exercised more and not reported these benefits (walking and standing over ten hours a day for instance, would be more energy intensive)

    I suspect that this effect is a fluke of evolution — the good-sleep trigger is hardwired to be set off by something which standing on one leg triggers relatively easily (or it does in Seth — has anyone else had a similar experience yet?). I think it has to do with nerve signals and/or pressure. Alternate hypotheses: 1. the sensory input to the brain from one-legged standing is heavy as the balance requires so much processing, so it simulates normal standing for really long periods, 2. there is a nerve signal produced by one-legged standing that is pressure sensitive.

    Other people exercise their legs strenuously without profound changes in sleep — myself for instance. I think the theory should account for that difference. I wonder whether anyone has noticed sleep benefits from gymnastics, or other activities where people might train to fatigue while balancing.

  5. “Other people exercise their legs strenuously without profound changes in sleep.” I think the details matter. I did one particular type of “exercise”. I think what I did is a particular efficient way of generating the necessary signal. You can “strenuously exercise” your legs in a hundred different ways and I’d guess that almost all of them less efficiently produce the necessary signal. I think the evolutionary story (better to grow muscles while they are still so they are grown during sleep; thus more growth –> more sleep) is so plausible that the effect could hardly be a “fluke” and is very likely to happen to everyone.

  6. Seth, you wrote: “I think the evolutionary reason that one-legged standing improves sleep is pretty obvious,” but provided an explanation why exercise would improve sleep — those are different, which my comment was addressing.

    You quoted my use of “fluke” out of context — I was not referring to sleep and muscle recovery, where the benefits are obvious, I was referring to one-legged standing triggering the better sleep mechanism more efficiently than alternative activities which would confer more evolutionary advantages — like hunting and gathering.

    So I agree that the details matter — what I’m wondering is whether there is some aspect of the details which can explain why THIS behaviour seems to create the BEST sleep response. A unique connection between balance and savanna behaviour, for instance.

    I agree that it is likely many or most people would have a similar response, and that it is likely that it is the combination of balance and strain that creates the response.

  7. MT, thanks for explaining that. Why does this form of exercise produce the effect more clearly than other forms? My guess is that the answer is: It produces the most muscle growth per unit time (spent exercising). In other forms of exercise, the stress is spread out over several systems (e.g., we become out of breath before our muscles get tired) and is more intermittent, so that there is more recovery. One-legged standing is especially efficient because the muscle-growing system is “isolated” and stressed without any recovery period.

  8. Hi- balancing on one leg is a common posture in Yoga as well as Tai Chi. Practitioners have long held that it helps with better sleeping. there are other potential connections: Standing on one leg (with a stick to lean on) is a common rest position among aborigines, Massai, etc. Any alternate stimulation on the brain (cf: EMDR) has shown anti-stress potential.

  9. Sounds reasonable — so the balance element is not relevant with that explanation, it is simply the continuity of the load to exhaustion which matters. That should be testable fairly easily, as bending your legs into a crouch with your upper body as upright as possible (known as as a chair sit – had to do them for ice hockey) is quite exhausting (the lower you sit, the harder — you can just crouch a bit for a good effect), and produces a continual load on your legs, like one-legged standing. To shorten the time to exhaustion of one-legged standing you could bend the leg a bit more as well. When doing CROUCHES or SQUATS — you want to KEEP YOUR KNEE BEHIND YOUR TOES, and in a straight line above them — can put too much pressure on the knee otherwise.

    Such variations could test whether balance is relevant, though I imagine you are interested in training your balance as well. There are inexpensive wobble boards that can add challenge to your balance exercises. There is some evidence that improving balance and coordination can help with aspects of cognition. Perhaps your results from the reaction-time test you devised would improve if you challenge balance and coordination simultaneously for a few weeks.

  10. I’ve tried the one-legged standing twice with disappointing results. It took me about 20 minutes to tire out leg, probably because I cycle for exercise, and I didn’t notice any improvement in my sleep. In fact, last night I slept ununsually poorly, waking briefly at 12:30, and waking up for good at 5 am. I will give it another try, but it may be one of those things that doesn’t work for everyone.

    Assuming that the effect, for you, has to do with stimulating muscle growth, perhaps I’d be better off exercising some less-developed muscle group. I’ve been planning to start some upper-body weight training. If/when I do, I’ll try to keep records on the connection with sleep patterns.

  11. have you tried introducing the variable of crossing your meridian during the stretch? Right hand stretching left leg while standing on right leg while crossing left hand to right shoulder? then visa versa.

  12. you might also want to try one legged squats. you stand on a sturdy chair or bench and do a squat on one leg. you don’t need the extra weight of a normal squat.

    maybe the extra intensity will have interesting effects…

  13. I’ve never posted here before, but I wanted to mention that I’ve been doing these exercises – standing on one leg – and it’s helped my sleep immensely. About a year ago, I went through a pretty traumatic experience that disrupted my sleep patterns. The end result was that I couldn’t sleep for longer than 3 or 4 hours at night without waking up. For several months, the lack of sleep was like living in a nightmare, and prescription drugs just made the problem worse. I finally decided to go off medication all together and change my attitude, which worked wonders – I could get back to sleep after I woke up – but I’d still only sleep in 4 hour chunks.

    About a month ago, I began doing these exercises, and now I’m sleeping 6 to 7 hours at a time. It’s amazing; and on the days I don’t do them, I don’t sleep well at all.

    It’s amazing how easy they are to do – if I find myself standing in line, meeting friends for a happy hour, or even watching tv, I’ll do them.

    Last night I told a friend to do them while he was at a happy hour, and this morning, he said he slept “like a log.”

    So, thanks so much for the suggestion and helping me regain my life/sleep back.

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