Do the benefits of waking up early outweigh the effort of doing so? There’s a popular conception that waking up is difficult, and morning is something to suffer through. However, there is also a cultural current which says that waking up early is a ticket to improved health and productivity. According to current research, the truth lies between these two poles.
Genetic Night Owls and Morning Larks
The timing of our sleep — when we naturally want to sleep, and when we naturally tend to wake up — is governed by our circadian rhythms. While these can be influenced by lifestyle choices like staying up late or sleeping in on weekends, as well as factors like blue light from screens, there is a genetic component as well.
A recent Harvard study on genetic “night owls” and “morning larks” found that naturally early risers score higher in overall well-being. They are also less likely to develop depression and schizophrenia. However, the study found no strong evidence that there is a genetic association between being a night owl and diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
Of course, the majority of people interested in changing their schedule to wake up earlier are not naturally predisposed towards early mornings. While it is challenging to separate genetics from the choice to wake up early, other research offers intriguing data.
The Benefits of Early Mornings
There is a long-standing cultural belief in the power of an early start. In America, the proverb of “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” is well-known. Other cultures have similar policies — such as in India, where research has found that an early wake-up time seems to improve memory and attention.
From an early age, early risers show signs of the greater well-being touted by the above study. For instance, children who wake up before 7:30 a.m. are more physically active during the day than their peers who wake up after that point. While there is little research on this subject in adults, it seems logical that the tendency may continue past puberty.
Exercise improves the mood, but waking up early seems to encourage happiness on its own as well. This was particularly true in older adults, who tend towards being less happy than younger adults.
Some of the current interest in early mornings comes from a perceived tendency for executives and high-profile figures to wake up early. However, it’s possibly what these people do with their mornings which accounts for their productivity: practicing gratitude, exercising, and enjoying themselves, all of which are associated with a better mood.
Finally, there does seem to be an association between waking up early and staying healthy. Children who wake up earlier are less likely to become overweight, and we tend to eat healthier during the day than at night. Waking up early may also make you more likely to eat breakfast, which has been linked with a lower BMI and healthier eating choices throughout the day.
The Drawbacks of Waking Up Early
The most critical disadvantage to waking up early is that, unless paired with an earlier bedtime, it can prevent you from getting enough sleep. This specific situation has been highlighted as a risk factor for diabetes, regardless of sleep deprivation’s effect on what you eat.
Additionally, you are open to all of the dangers of sleep deprivation, including:
- Drowsy driving, particularly on morning commutes
- Higher risk of disease, including heart disease
- Brain fogginess and memory problems
- Anxiety and other mental health issues
Choosing to suffer through a late night/early morning schedule throughout the week and then trying to “catch up” by sleeping in on the weekend is also counter-productive. While you may feel better after sleeping in, you will not have made up for your sleep debt. Additionally, sleeping in will further confuse your circadian rhythm and make waking up early that much more difficult the next week.
If you can stabilize an early morning pattern which allows you enough sleep, it is still important not to think of waking up early as a miracle cure. People who have done this themselves emphasize the importance of making a plan for what you will do with your mornings in order to make the most of them.
Circadian rhythms and your sleep timing can make a major difference to your sleep health. Follow the links below to learn more about these and other factors.