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Your sleep can affect how you walk, a new study says

<i>Shutterstock</i><br/>A lack of sleep can affect your ability to walk
A lack of sleep can affect your ability to walk

By Sandee LaMotte, CNN

If you’re sleep deprived — and who isn’t these days? — you’re probably familiar with the impact on your body and psyche. You’re plagued by sleepiness and yawning, you may suffer headaches, and you can easily feel anxious, irritable or depressed.

You can now add an unsteady walk to that list. A new study sheds light on the association of a lack of shut-eye and your gait — thus potentially affecting your ability to walk purposely, avoid obstacles and keep your balance.

“The results show that gait is not an automatic process, and that it can be affected by sleep deprivation,” said study author Hermano Krebs, an adjunct professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in a statement.

“Ideally, everyone should sleep eight hours a night,” said Krebs, who is also a principal research scientist in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of mechanical engineering. “But if we can’t, then we should compensate as much and as regularly as possible.”

Gait is not so automatic

Scientists used to think that walking was a fully automated process — we pointed ourselves in the direction we wanted to go and our body automatically took over with little cognitive assistance.

Research has now shown that’s not the case. Our brain reacts to visual or auditory cues in our path, adjusting our gait to slow or speed up as needed. In the case of music, for example, we may adjust our stride to keep the beat without realizing it.

“The concept of gait being only an automatic process is not a complete story,” Krebs said. “There’s a lot of influence coming from the brain.”

For optimal brain power, adults need to sleep at least seven hours a night, while school-age kids need nine to 12 hours and teens need eight to 10 hours each night, according to the US Centers on Disease Control and Prevention.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, focused on chronically sleep-starved college students at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. The students wore sleep trackers for 14 days to record their sleep and waking periods; on average, the students slept about six hours a night.

Half of the group then pulled an all-nighter before taking a treadmill test, in which they were asked to keep step with the beat of a metronome.

“They had to synchronize their heel strike to the beat, and we found the errors were larger in people with acute sleep deprivation,” said lead author Arturo Forner-Cordero, an associate professor in the department of mechatronics at the University of São Paulo.

“They were off the rhythm, they missed beeps, and were performing in general, worse,” Forner-Cordero said in a statement.

Sleep compensation as safety measure

Oddly, however, students who had attempted to reduce their sleep deficit by sleeping in on weekends performed a bit better on the task, Forner-Cordero and Krebs found.

That’s not a strategy most sleep experts recommend. Studies have found that changing your regular sleep-wake time by 90 minutes — in either direction — significantly increases your chance of having a heart attack or heart disease.

Regardless, the study is an important message about the need for adequate sleep, especially for those who work in industries in which shift-work is common or where an unsteady gait might be dangerous.

“Compensating for sleep could be an important strategy,” Forner-Cordero said. “For instance, for those who are chronically sleep-deprived, like shift workers, clinicians, and some military personnel, if they build in regular sleep compensation, they might have better control over their gait.”

Sign up for the Sleep, But Better newsletter series. Our seven-part guide has helpful hints to achieve better sleep.

How to build better sleep habits

The good news is you can take back control of your sleep by training your brain. One top recommendation is adequate exercise. As little as 10 minutes a day of walking, biking or other aerobic exercise can “drastically improve nighttime sleep quality,” according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Stay away from coffee after 3 p.m., and avoid alcohol before bed. You may think it helps you doze off, but you are more likely to wake in the night as your body begins to process the spirits.

Set up your room for optimal sleep by having a comfortable bed and pillows, keep the room cool, and don’t watch TV or work in your bedroom. You want your brain to think of the room as only for sleep. Be sure to eliminate all bright lights, as even the blue light of smartphones or laptops can be disruptive.

Taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, listening to soothing music, meditating or doing light stretches are all good options to ready your brain for bed. It’s also very important to keep a regular sleep-wake schedule, even on weekends.

Follow these steps, and you’ll be well on your way to improving your sleep habits — and improving your gait.

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