May 8 / Amanda Slinger

The Surprising Reasons We Sleep better On Holiday

I’m generally a pretty good sleeper, but it does take know-how, motivation, and effort. Interestingly though, the times when my sleep is at it's all time best is when I’m on holiday.

Anecdotally, many people experience better sleep when on holiday, and whilst there’s limited research on why this happens (shout out to anyone who’d like to fund yours truly to undertake a study on the topic!), what we do know may surprise you.

In this article you'll discover the not-so-obvious reasons why you sleep better on holiday and what you can do to bring more of it home with you?

The obvious reasons

The obvious reasons that we sleep better on holiday are reduced stress and relaxation. Duh! 

Without the stressors of work and daily life, our bodies and minds can unwind, and we can enjoy lower cortisol levels and deeper, more restorative sleep.

But what of the less obvious reasons?

The not-so-obvious reasons

The two most surprising reasons you feel more rested on holiday are:
  • More exposure to sunlight; and
  • More physical activity. 
In holiday-mode we generally see a lot more natural light (unless you’re a 20-something holidaying in Ibiza!), and we clock up a lot more ‘steps’ than when we’re in work-mode. Of course, it depends on the type of holiday you take!

I recently returned from a 2-week boating holiday in the Abrolhos Islands, and whilst I clocked up less steps in my 2 weeks on board ‘The Force’ than I would have sitting at my desk in a workday, I was either hauling fish onto the deck, swimming, diving or spearfished every day (with a little long-table lunching with crayfish and champagne!).

That’s a lot more physical activity than my usual workday routine of a short morning swim or run and then desk-bound for the remainder of the day.

And whilst the sun didn’t shine every day (thanks to cyclone Isla), I was bathed in natural light from sunrise to sunset. No windows, just the big wide blue Australian sky.

The influence of natural light and movement

So, what has natural light and exercise got to do with sleep? Well, it turns out, quite a lot!!!
If you’ve been following me for even a short while, you’ll know that I bang on about the importance of natural light exposure (in the morning) to optimise the timing and quality of sleep. This is what I call 10B410 – that stands for 10 minutes of sunlight before 10 am each day.

Natural light is essential for resetting your body clock each day, and for optimising the preparation and timing of melatonin when the sun sets.

We need to reset our body clock each day because it actually runs longer than the 24 hour clock, and without the influence of light our bodyclock will tend to shift later and later each day. Just ask any parent of a teen!

Physical activity in the morning can also help in the timing of your bodyclock, although it‘s affect isn’t nearly as powerful as that of natural light. However, physical activity is important to sleep in other ways.

Who hasn’t felt the pull of sleep after a physically active day, and the restlessness we feel after an inactive one.

Our modern dilemma

Unfortunately, exposure to natural light and physical activity are two things we don't always get enough of during our busy workdays, especially so in the winter months when daylight hours are fewer.

"Ah... But!" I hear you say…
  • “Sunlight streams into my kitchen window in the morning”
  • “I walk to the bus stop in the morning and get plenty of light”
  • “I sit in front of a bright window at work all day”
Unfortunately, glass of any type… your kitchen window, your office window, the car window… reflects natural light and only a fraction of the light that hits the surface of the window will penetrate through the glass and into the air on the other side.

This means the amount of light you're exposed to behind a glass window is significantly less than the amount you need to effectively reset your bodyclock each day.

Sure, the natural light filtering through a glass window and artificial indoor light will influence your bodyclock, however it will take a lot, lot longer and is less effective in timing your bodyclock.

And what about sunglasses?

Like most Australians, you’re likely to reach for your sunnies before you’ve left the house, even on cloudy days! It’s a habit that I found hard to break.

But just as a glass window reflects light from entering, so too do the lenses of your sunnies.

So ditch the sunnies until later in the day, unless you're particularly sensitive to light.

Reclaiming the Balance

So how can you apply this knowledge to the non-holiday part of your life?

Look for opportunities to get exposure to natural light before 10am in the morning.

  • Consider habit-stacking e.g. if your morning routine includes a cuppa before you head to work, consider taking it outside.
  • Don’t let the cold weather put you off. Rug up and brave the winter weather to get your daily dose of natural light.
  • If the sun doesn’t come up until after you’ve started work, look for 10 minutes to head outside. Schedule a call and take it on your mobile outside, schedule a meeting with someone and go for walk together instead of sitting in a meeting room.
  • Check your sunnies at the door! Sure they look cool, but do you really need them today or just yet in your day? Pack them but wait until after 10 to wear them.
  • Take your allocated breaks in your day (which you’re not actually paid to work!) Go for a walk, take your lunch outside. Challenge yourself to step away from your desk. And, please! let’s not mistake laziness as busyness.

Increase how much you move each day, especially on workdays. 

  • Look for opportunities to walk… phone calls, meetings, a pause in your day, stretch your legs, or just simply stand-up! You don’t need to sweat to reap the benefits.
  • Throw in a few simple exercises that will help to build muscle and bone density, kick start your day, and encourage deep slumber. For example, start with:
    i. 3 x 10 second planks, and progress over time to more complex planks.
    ii. 3 x 10 h
    eels raises, using your hands for support against the wall as shower. Progress to no hand support and then onto single heel raises (other foot off the ground!)
  • Leverage the time you’re on the phone – you don’t need to be sitting on your arse while you talk! Though be sure to chose a type of exercise/ movement that doesn’t distract you from your conversation.
    i. Buy yourself some light free weights and keep them on the floor under your desk. When you have a longer call, grab one and do 3 x 10 biceps curls, 3 x 10 palm up/down wrist curls…
    ii. Grab some air pods or similar and get moving or stretching.
These are just a few ideas. I’m sure you can be creative and come up with others that are even easier to fit into your day and more appealing.

So, whilst most of us aren’t in a position to take a holiday every week, we can call upon the benefits of natural light and physical activity and look to add these into our daily routine. 

I’d love to hear what you’re doing to increase your exposure to natural light and movement. Send me an email or message me on LinkedIn.