Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 17)

The story so far. Standing on one foot till exhaustion twice during the day vastly improved my sleep that night. I slept longer and, especially, woke up much more rested.

Theory. I have a theory about what’s going on. When muscles are stressed — used until some of the muscle fibers break — two things happen: 1. More muscle fibers grow (= you become stronger). Everyone knows this. 2. A chemical is released by the muscle that travels to the brain and increases depth of sleep. This is a new idea. The big picture is that sleep is controlled by many things; this is one of them. Morning light is also important but that is pretty obvious, at least to sleep researchers. Morning light appears to control both the timing and depth of sleep. These muscle-produced hormones appear to mainly affect depth of sleep; I don’t notice any change in when I sleep. The evolutionary rationale is plain: We grow muscles better when we’re asleep. If we need to grow muscles more than usual, we need more sleep than usual.

New data. I want to understand what the effect depends on. What makes it weaker or stronger — especially stronger? As my legs grew stronger, the effect became slightly weaker, presumably because it was harder to produce new muscle growth in a practical amount of time. My main measure of the effect is how rested I feel when I awake. I assess that on a 0-100 scale where 0 = just as tired as when I fell asleep and 100 = completely free from tiredness. I reached scores of 100 years ago when I was on my feet for 9 or 10 hours during the day and once or twice on camping trips. Standing that much is impractical so 100 appeared impossible to reach regularly. In Berkeley, during the months before I discovered this effect,  this score averaged about 95.  After discovery of this effect, it was usually 99 — a big easy-to-notice improvement.

But 99 was impossible to maintain because as my legs got stronger it started to take a really long time to exhaust them. I shifted to standing on one bent leg. This obviously reduced how long I needed to stand to produce exhaustion but it was less effective (presumably because fewer muscles were involved). When I shifted from standing one-legged however I wanted (two bouts/day) to standing with the leg bent most or all of the time (four bouts/day), the scores went down to 98 or 97. After a week or so of bent-leg standing I started using the cycle 50 seconds bent, 10 seconds straight; I repeated this as long as I could.

Here is a graph showing how long I stood.

standing duration

The interesting point is that the strength increase finally levelled off at a bearable amount of time, yet the effect has persisted. If I spend about 8 minutes 4 times a day watching TV or a movie (and standing on one bent leg at the same time) I can substantially improve my sleep. This is practical. It’s the easiest exercise I’ve ever done. No special equipment. Watch TV at the same time. Big benefit. I’ve tried other muscle-building exercises, including push-ups done two different ways, jump-roping, and something vaguely resembling a biceps curl done with a thick rubber band. None has had a detectable effect. For example, after a day with jump-roping and two bouts of one-legged standing, I sleep about as well as after a day with just two bouts of one-legged standing.

Can I say again how wonderful it is to wake up totally rested? It seems almost within my grasp.

Previous posts about this.

13 Replies to “Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 17)”

  1. 0-100 is a really high resolution for such a subjective parameter.

    Clearly any number you come up with is an estimate. What is your confidence level on the estimate? In other words, if there was an objective measure of how well rested you were after sleep, how close do you think your subjective estimate would be to the other objective one.

  2. Obvious empirical question: do people who start lifting weights either as a practice, or implicitly as part of a job they start working at, who have previously been sleeping poorly, suddenly start sleeping better? I recall sleeping best after helping friends move and carrying lots of heavy boxes up stairs and across relatively long differences. I used to jump at the chance to help people move. And once tried carrying boxes across my room for 15 minutes a day but it was boring and I didn’t stay with it.

    Your theory about standing was about muscle maintenance as well. A friend years ago recommended I treat my depression by working construction; she said the cumuluative effect would be to free my mind by relaxing my body. She did it and discovered muscles she didn’t know she had and said she slept better.

    This may be yet another astonishing finding Seth to add to your list — pretty incredible!

  3. I don’t think lifting weights would do much — unless you lifted those weights with your legs. One thing about my standing research I never appreciated until now: the amount of standing varied from day to day (from low such as 5 hours to high such as 9 hours) which meant that 9 hours would always be difficult — in contrast to a design in which I stood 9 hours every day (in which case 9 hours would get easier and the effect, I now predict, would have become weaker).

  4. Beijing Sounds, I wake up whenever I want. No alarm.

    Confidence, a 0-100 scale is unusual, yes, but unusual compared to studies done with unpracticed subjects — and anyway estimates close to the edge of the scale may be much more accurate than those in the middle. Quite apart from that the proof is in the pudding: the estimates turn out to be useful.

    The confidence interval would be pretty small for the numbers close to 100; maybe 2 or less. As for objective versus subjective measures, I can’t imagine what you mean by ‘the objective measure.” There are so many possibilities.

  5. While I remain impressed by the results, I don’t find the muscle-chemical theory convincing. I think that there must be something else about one leg standing that has a unique physiological effect. Perhaps some nerve is triggered in a special way after nine hours standing, and that effect is exaggerated with one leg standing to exhaustion.

    My reasoning is that you are reporting much greater sleep benefits than other people who exercise their legs (and other muscles) more strenuously. One leg standing is remarkable in part because it is so UNdemanding. Yet you realised more benefits to your sleep after 20 minutes than people who lift heavy weights (including leg weights) for an hour or more. I have lifted weights to the point I would be sore for a few days afterward (muscle tissue breakdown no less, which you suggest as a source for the chemical release) and never experienced the benefits you describe. Nor has anyone else reported them to me. Given millions of people you would think someone might have noticed something.

    Standing on one leg — a comparably rare activity — has produced someone noticing something.

    Admittedly, you are unique in your observation of these things, but there are so many millions of people who have done strenuous exercise for decades, it seems unlikely to be as simple as a chemical released by muscle breakdown. I’m impressed and convinced that you’re realising these benefits, but find the theory wanting. Which isn’t that important — if the results are useful, that is more important. If they can be replicated, even better. I tried it about a dozen times and didn’t notice any benefits.

  6. MT, I think the muscle-brain connection is chemical for three reasons: (1) The effect of the exercise seems to sit there until I fall asleep. Neural signals are more transient. (2) Once I did a set of 4 close together in time. Usually I do two (right leg, left leg) than wait several hours before the next set of two. When I did the set of 4 close together in time it seemed no more effective than a set of two. The chemical explanation is that there wasn’t enough time to replenish the chemical signal that had been released. Nerves, in contrast, recover very fast. (3) There are no nerves that transmit from muscles to brain. There are only nerves that transmit from brain to muscle.

    Why has no one noticed this before? Here are some possible reasons: 1. Hard to publicize. You notice it but you can’t spread your discovery. 2. Self-experimentation not popular. You notice better sleep but you don’t investigate. 3. Off the beaten track of exercise. I originally did it as a stretch not as a way of muscle building. Conventional muscle-building exercise consists of many repetitions. That may target the wrong system. 4. If you simply do the same thing again and again the effect goes away. 5. Hard to separate signal from noise. I had trouble figuring out why I had slept so well — and I had previously discovered a similar effect (involving standing a lot). 6. I was keeping track of how well I slept, so this really stood out. Hardly anybody does this.

  7. Seth, re: 1. I’m not sure neural and chemical can be distinguished so clearly, but think the ‘sitting there’ sensation (if I’m interpreting properly) could come from another source, 2. neural signals themselves may operate rather quickly but set in motion systems that osicllate over various time-periods, from seconds to hours to days or longer — as when a nerve signal triggers the release of melatonin that helps regulate the sleep cycle — such a nerve signal could be involved here — chemicals and nerves interact 3. what do you mean there are only nerves that transmit from brain to muscle, not the other direction? what about sensory signals like pain?

    Perhaps my biggest sticking point is that I am guessing that one-leg standing is helping your sleep more than more strenuous alternative leg exercises are helping others. If this effect were caused by muscles releasing chemicals when they are broken down, then people who broke down more muscles, releasing more chemicals, would have more profound sleep effects. This doesn’t seem to be the case in my experience having lifted weights and having friends who have. One-leg standing takes little energy and does not produce the soreness that is caused by broken muscle tissue — or at least produces less of it than things like cycling, running, weight-lifting.

    It seems to me something about the way the load is distributed — as with 9-hour standing — but somehow the one-leg standing accelerates that effect. The two have parallels, and I don’t think the parallel is a chemical or damaged muscle tissue. Similarly, you described the 9-hour standing as dose-dependent. You didn’t see an effect until you crossed a certain standing threshold, then you saw a big effect. I’m guessing one-leg standing and 9-hour standing are related.

    Exercise generally improves sleep, that has been observed and is well known. You seem to be describing/experiencing something more.

  8. Very interesting blog. I’ve struggled with sleep issues for years, so I’m always interested in reading about what people try.

    In the discussion about strenuous exercise vs. one-leg standing, I think there’s a clear difference between these two types of exercise that I don’t think anybody has mentioned. If you’re doing conventional weight lifting, you are doing short contractions of the muscle (i.e. lift, release, repeat). Even exercise like running or swimming is composed of short, repeated contractions, albeit spread over a span of time. Whereas when you do the one-leg standing, the muscle is contracted CONSTANTLY for a long period of time without release. If you’re theorizing and considering why one-leg standing works and weight-lifting doesn’t, I would say that long, constant contraction works better than long, punctuated contractions.

    That being said, have you ever tried holding a push-up position (or the plank yoga pose) to exhaustion? I’d be curious if this would work like the one-leg standing, since it uses such a large number of muscles to hold this position.

    Finally, I just wanted to share some things that have helped with my sleep (I don’t have much trouble staying asleep, but I have trouble falling asleep). A lot of people complain that melatonin makes them very foggy the next day, as did the man you mentioned in an earlier post. I had a similar experience when I tried melatonin years ago. Recently, however, I read that the dose in which melatonin is sold is much higher than what the body actual needs. Most melatonin is sold in 3mg tablets, whereas the body only needs about 175 micrograms. Instead of taking a full tablet, I cut the 3mg tablets into quarters or smaller so that each is less than 1mg and take one of these small fragments about a half and hour before I go to bed. I’ve been doing this for 2 months and have never been able to so consistently fall asleep (even when traveling across time zones). It’s been a miracle. Additionally, I started to wear earplugs when I sleep and the quality of my sleep has improved significantly.

    Good luck with your sleep trials! I certainly understand the value of a good night’s sleep.

  9. efm, I tried doing pushups to exhaustion. This had no clear effect on my sleep. I think the difference is that leg muscles are much larger than the muscles used for pushups.

  10. Very interesting topic. I and many others have found that standing before bed improves sleep. There are a few variables I didn’t see mentioned here…

    – Eyes open, or closed?
    – Lights on, or off?
    – Standing as still as possible, or wobbling around (accidentally or intentionally)?
    – Hands down, or up? If up, then in what position?

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