Sleep – the US Army’s new powerful weapon

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The US Army knows that soldiers and athletes share many traits: discipline, teamwork, commitment... and that good quality sleep improves their performance. (Read: Five ways sleep impacts an athlete's performance)

From 2015-2016, 80 US soldiers were introduced to a new way of doing army life. For one full year, these soldiers agreed to learn and live the three pillars of a wellness campaign known as ‘The Performance Triad’. These pillars are nutrition, exercise and sleep. Regular, intense exercise and healthy eating were already common practice within the army, but sleep was something to be treated with disdain rather than to be prioritised.

And so the study has focussed on improving the sleep of these 80 soldiers above anything else.

This was achieved and monitored as follows:
• Fitbits were worn to track their sleep – the aim was for soldiers to get at least 7,5 hours of quality sleep in.
• Physical Training times were adjusted – rather than working out at 6.30am, these men were told to sleep in, have breakfast at home and save themselves for their tough, daily cardio and strength regimen at 4 p.m.
• Nightly "bed checks" were done earlier – the alarms used were quieter and the sergeant inspects the beds all at once rather than over two hours.

Jordan Thornburg, battalion physician assistant at Fort Riley, told The Huffington Post:

"The afternoon PT was a dramatic switch at first, since early-morning PT is the 'Army Way', but they quickly came to love it. Their morale was better, they were less irritable, and their performance went up. Which makes sense because waking up later is more in line with their natural circadian rhythms."

The sleep interventions have shown encouraging results:
1. The soldiers improved their marksmanship scores from 75.6 percent to 91.9 percent.
2. Physician assistant, Jordan Thornburg, based at Fort Riley, reported “that they had higher morale, were more punctual and had improved endurance”.
3. The soldiers reported improved quality of life – they could spend more time with their children before school and eat breakfast as a family at home.

The US army’s greatest challenge now is to find ways to give more sleep to those on and off duty. Between 2011 and 2014, fatigue was cited as the cause of 628 army accidents and 32 soldier deaths.

As Thornburg, who served as an engineer officer in both Iraq and Kuwait, has said: "We want our soldiers to be in peak form from their training, not worn down. And in the field -- frankly, I think it could reduce deaths."

For those of us who have the privilege of getting enough sleep, surely we should make it a priority? Want to feel better and do better every day? Be sure to get your body on a Sealy.
If you invest in a Sealy before 30 September 2017, you could also win your share of R250,000.

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