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Three reasons why sleep is different than nutrition and physical fitness

The pioneer of sleep research, Dr. William Dement, was the first to talk about the “triumvirate of health”: nutrition, physical fitness, and sleep.


Even though the National Sleep Foundation’s CEO David Cloud says “sleep is as vital to our health as eating right and exercise” , compared to the other components of the triumvirate, sleep has three unique aspects.  It is worth exploring what these are so that we can have better expectations about how to change our sleep habits…and therefore our health.

(1) Your normal routine can’t easily accommodate your sleep goals

If you are trying to stick to your diet, but your colleagues call for a working lunch in the conference room, you could still order a healthy option.  Or, you could manage your portions differently.  Likewise, if you don’t have time for the gym, you can at least take the stairs to your office instead of riding the elevator.

By contrast, if you want to get more sleep, you may not be able to simply go to bed earlier tonight.  What if you have a hard deadline for work?  What if your children are sick?  What if you try to fall asleep but your mind is racing with thoughts of all you have to do tomorrow?  And you almost certainly can’t sleep in later tomorrow!

(2) Difficulty of getting (accurate) data…

It’s pretty easy to know precisely how many calories were in the grilled chicken and broccoli you had for dinner.

Until recently, though, getting sleep data was not possible outside a sleep clinic.  As I wrote about in February, society owes a debt of gratitude to companies like UP by Jawbone because they created a new product category predicated on giving people access to more data.  However, the jury is still out on the accuracy of sleep trackers’ data.

(3) …frustration of not being able to act on that data

Even if you were able to have accurate sleep data…and a desire to do something with it…what would you do with it?  It’s frustrating to know that you need to improve your sleep habits but not be able to do anything about it.

So, when thinking about the triumvirate of health, recognize that sleep is unique compared to nutrition and exercise.  Therefore, it requires different types of solutions.

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