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5 tips to improve sleep in young athletes during the pandemic
COVID-19 has upended nearly all aspects of life as we know it. One of the most negative aspects of this upheaval is the toll the pandemic has taken on the sleep of those not infected by the virus. Reports of vivid dreams and insomnia are rampant among the general population. Athletes aren’t immune to the effects of this unusual time in our history.
Stress and anxiety about the current world situation can cause sleep disruptions. They can also be a result of social isolation and the disruption to regular routines. Chinese researchers found that the incidence of insomnia increased significantly in 3,637 respondents to a survey after the appearance of COVID-19 in China(1). Another study conducted by researchers in Beijing discovered that anxiety and stress brought on after a period of social isolation decreased sleep quality in 170 surveyed individuals(2).
The importance of sleep
Most know that a good night’s sleep makes a difference in how you feel the next day. However, sleep is more than a mood elevator. It plays a pivotal role in immune function, memory integration, and pain perception. Immune suppression brought on by sleep debt may make individuals more susceptible to opportunistic diseases or worsen the symptoms brought on by the novel coronavirus(3). Lack of quality sleep may impair memory or increase the sensation of both acute and chronic pain(4). Canadian researchers recently explored the relationship between sleep and pain in adolescents and found that the complex phenomena become more connected during periods of restricted sleep(4).
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic haven’t spared the world’s youth. They, perhaps, have suffered the most disruption to their lives as they engage in distance learning and go without the social interaction so vital to their development. Since a significant number of young people participate in sports, it’s important to recognize the impact that sleep disturbances may have on these young athletes as they recover from injury and return to sport.
Keys to good zzzz’s
Clinicians and trainers may be the only ones to ask younger athletes how they are sleeping. Depending on their age, they may not know how to articulate their inability to sleep or the poor quality of their sleep. Of course, always include parents in discussions about a child’s health and wellbeing. The education you provide might just help the whole family have a more restful night.
5 tips inspired by the movie Frozen to improve sleep:
- “The Sky is awake, so I’m awake…”– Many kids will immediately recognize this quote from the movie Frozen. It’s a great way to emphasize to youngsters how important daylight is in keeping a healthy circadian rhythm. Encourage young athletes to get up with the sun and play outside, so they experience enough natural light to help them be sleepy at nighttime. While teens tend to shift their sleep schedule to more wakefulness during the evening, they too can benefit from rising earlier to experience more natural light, especially if they spend most of their day viewing the computer for school. A structured and regular wake and sleep time benefit children most(5).
- “…so we have to play!” – Frozen’s Anna doesn’t just want to get up; she wants to play. Help kids understand that exercise is essential to getting a good night’s sleep. Physical activity early in the day rather than later toward evening helps promote sleepiness(5). Encourage them, when able to do so safely, to engage in activities that will help them stay strong and fit when it’s time to return to sport.
- “Let it go!” – The evening is the time to shut off electronics, avoid caffeine, and settle in for rest. Bedtime isn’t the ideal time to pull out a homework project or play video games. Recommend that parents fill the 30 minutes before bedtime with calming activities such as reading, journaling, working a puzzle, or sketching in an art pad.
- “I think some company is overdue. I’ve started talking to the pictures on the walls!” – Kids will likely identify strongly with Anna’s isolation. While their “pictures on the walls” might be the kids in their virtual classroom, encourage other modes of social interaction where they can share their feelings and clear their heads. Art projects they share with a neighbor, letter writing, or keeping an activity journal they share with teammates electronically can help youngsters feel less isolated. Apps like Strava can link older teammates and help them feel connected and accountable for their training. More social capital or engagement decreases anxiety and promotes better sleep(2).
- “The cold never bothered me anyway.” – Colder temperatures at night promote sleep. Experts recommend temperatures around 19° C (66° F) for optimal rest(5). Make this recommendation to parents to encourage a better sleep environment for the whole family.
- J Clin Sleep Med. 2020 April 30. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.8524 [Epub ahead of print]
- Med Sci Monit. 2020;26:e923921
- J Clin Sleep Med. 2020 Apr 23. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.8502. [Epub ahead of print]
- Neuroscience Biobehavioral Rev. 2019;96:401-413
- J Sleep Res. 2020;00:e13052