The coronavirus pandemic and attendant lock-down conditions appears to have a silver lining: young people, who often tend to be too busy to follow a healthy sleep routine, appear to be getting more sleep when ordered to stay at home and observe social distancing.
These findings, reported in a new study, came about by a happy accident.
A researcher from the University of Colorado (CU) had already collected sleep data from 139 CU Boulder students for a week from January 29 to February 4 as part of a class project.
A month later, as the pandemic began to bite in the US, the university switched to online instruction.
The researcher, Ken Wright – a professor of integrative physiology and director of the CU’s Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory – says he “saw an opportunity.”
Dr Wright repeated the week-long survey with the same students – by then under stay-at-home orders – from April 22 to 29. He then teamed up with sleep researchers at the University of Washington to analyse the data.
Up to 14 hours a week improvement
The researchers found that, “on average, the students were devoting 30 more minutes per weekday and 24 more minutes per weekend to sleep.”
That’s about three and a half hours more sleep a week.
The results were more dramatic among students who had been skimping on sleep before the pandemic. Locked-down, some saw the greatest improvements, with some sleeping as much as two additional hours each night. That is,14 hours a week.
“Even though we are living through this incredibly stressful time, which is changing our behaviors drastically, we are seeing changes to sleep behaviors that are for the most part positive,” said Dr Wright.
Less social jet-lag
The students were found to keep more regular sleep and wake times and experienced less ‘social jetlag’ – this is “the groggy feeling that occurs when people stay up late and sleep later on the weekends and must resume an earlier schedule on Monday mornings.”
Dr Wright referenced studies that found inadequate sleep was “associated with negative health outcomes, such as weakened immune systems, that leave people more vulnerable to viral infections and less responsive to vaccines.”
In addition, irregular sleep and social jetlag can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and mood disorders, said Dr Wright.
Young people tend to have a sleep problem
After the pandemic began, 92 per cent of the students enjoyed the minimum seven hours per night of sleep as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Typically, only about two-thirds of U.S. college students get that much sleep.
A 2018 report from VicHealth and the Sleep Health Foundation found that the average Australian teenager only gets between 6.5 and 7.5 hours of sleep a night, well under the recommended 8-10 hours.
The study found that sleep deficits were seriously impacting mental well-being. On the upside, the study found that “teens who put down their smart-phones an hour before bed gained an extra 21 minutes sleep a night and an hour and 45 minutes over the school week.”
Investigating the wider population
Researchers from the University of Washington are working on a study that looks at the wider population, and takes in measures of mental health.
The researchers are tracking people’s sleep patterns, stress, and mood amidst the social-distancing measures of COVID-19. The study could provide “useful information for how the rigidity of routines affects sleep, which in turn has a huge impact on health and well-being.”
Every night for a month, the participants wear Fitbit-style watches that track movement and light. They also fill out a Google survey to share what their mood and productivity was like each day.
To complete the study, the researchers will need to repeat the experiment with the participants when “routines have returned to a more normal pattern.”
The researchers acknowledge that routines “might never be back to exactly how they were before COVID-19.”
Hopefully they won’t lose any sleep over it.