Who knew that through the Healthy Weight Program that I would become somewhat of a sleep advocate… but that’s the absolute truth. When I began my fitness journey my sleep was alarmingly poor and I had no idea just how bad it was. The benefits our body accrues from good sleep are often reported in the media, but lack of sleep was actually killing me. I was dragging through every day, not realising at all how dysfunctional I was. Let me just say, by the time I began this journey my kids were all way beyond the “little kid stage of waking their mother multiple times a night”… but the years of waking every two hours and lack of sleep discipline, meant that most nights I was getting possibly two and maybe three hours sleep a night.

I was barely awake… I was getting things done, just. And I was in survival mode continuously. After years of sleeping like a poorly sleep trained toddler, it was time to get my sleep act together… it took a year to get me to the stage where I could sleep six hours straight, another year to seven… and I thought that was the best I would ever be able to do. In fact I thought I was a seven hour a night sleeper… It was only when I was able to train harder and started training for a half marathon that I managed to get my sleep into the eight hours a night category and now I cannot imagine trying to survive on less than seven hours a night.

I thought that was enough, in fact I was quite proud of that achievement… eight hours a night is good enough. Nope, eight hours is just enough. This past year where I have been training for ultra events and doing loads of exercise I have discovered for restorative sleep I need to push to nine hours… which seems crazy… but less than that and I wake up grumpy and it takes a while to get going. Restorative sleep is when I wake up and I can feel that my body has recovered from the training of the day before… and I love that recovered feeling. I am prepared to work very hard for it… and I have discovered that the only way to get it is to go to sleep way earlier than I want to. I naturally want to stay up late, I naturally want to read in bed till the end of the book, I naturally want to make sure that everything is ready for the next day. Honestly, I have to take drastic measures to get to bed timeously… but restorative sleep is, for me, the ultimate reward… and SO worth it.

It’s Time to Take Sleep Seriously

In the fourth week of working out, I could not believe we were nearly half way through the eight week Healthy Weight Program. Time moves fast when you are learning new things. At that stage, so much has changed and so much is actionable. I would never have guessed how much I have learnt and how much I am learning along the way. The truth is there are so many factors that contribute to your healthy weight, not just what you eat, but how much exercise, and believe it or not how much you sleep. At this stage, nearly half way through the program, I wouldn’t dream of wasting a meal on something that wasn’t nutritious; I wouldn’t consider missing a workout at all; I am working on not telling myself that I can’t do “oh so many things to do with exercise” but, given all those changes, I would still work late if I have a deadline or a blog post to get out. Sleep is the one thing that is critical to our health and I am totally speaking for myself here, but I know folk are not nearly as careful about getting enough sleep as they should be.

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I knew at the initial assessment for the Healthy Weight Program that the hardest thing for me to get right would be sleeping correctly. I need to radically change my thinking about sleep. It really is not okay to miss out on it ever. So I wanted to learn more about sleep and signed up to join the sleep study. I reckoned if I fully understood the “why” behind sleeping, then I would be much more determined to get it right. Because I am working out at the Sport Science Institute of South Africa, naturally a lot of scientific study goes on behind the scenes of “the gym.” The sleep study is part of an ongoing Phd program to determine if a lifestyle intervention program, like the Healthy Weight Program, will affect the sleep characteristics of overweight South Africans.

First things first… Did you know that less than 7 hours and more than 9 hours sleep a night can cause a person to gain weight and therefore puts them at risk of all sorts of associated chronic diseases. Also, your body has its own natural rhythm or body clock, that ensures that your body functions to a specific rhythm and you are hungry or tired, for example, at the same time each day. When your body clock is disrupted so is your natural sleep pattern. I can honestly say after years of sleep disruption with little children waking me multiple times a night, my personal sleep pattern is in a state of chaos… and while all my children now sleep properly through the night every night… I definitely don’t. I was interested to discover that our circadian rhythms are determined in our DNA. The point is that our DNA might determine our physiology, and our natural clock, but can outside “environmental factors” like many more visits to the gym, affect our sleep habits?

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My first visit with the sleep expert meant filling in a massive questionnaire… on my general mood, sleep patterns and so on. I was asked to keep a sleep diary for a week and wear an actiwatch that can tell when you are awake or a sleep… so there is no chance of saying you went to bed early if indeed you didn’t. I was also asked to keep a food diary and make notes on anything that would affect my sleep. I also contributed some blood to science… for testing… the obvious things like glucose and cholesterol, but also looking for the sleep genes in my DNA.

The second visit was more interesting than filling in forms and donating blood to science. I went in to determine my resting metabolic rate and to assess my body composition. Firstly the resting metabolic rate is a measure of how much energy you use when resting. Naturally the fitter you are the higher that number would be and by the end of the eight week study that number should have gone up. To determine my resting metabolic rate, I had to be at the Sport Science Centre frightfully early in the morning… long before dawn (!), lie in a comfy bed with a dome over my head and then breathe naturally, so that oxygen and carbon dioxide levels could be measured, all the while the computer is making a soft humm… it was almost impossible to stay awake. This was followed by a special dual x-ray absorptiometry scan… which is a fancy way for saying a scan of your body that determines your bone density, and your body composition… the amount of muscle and fat present in your body. The resulting picture looks like a skeleton, surrounded by a layer of muscle in red and then another layer of fat in orange. And as the radiographer was happy to announce, not very flattering (!!!). Hopefully this picture will change, though I can’t imagine too dramatically over just eight weeks, perhaps over a longer time frame it would change.

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Finally, I did a two night sleep study… in our home… and my kids and I were intrigued to see living science in action. Each evening our sleep expert came over and patiently took an hour and a half to attach electrodes and sensors onto my head, chin, near my eyes and so on, to determine breathing rate and heart rate as well as heart function. It even measures if you snore… horrors there is no escaping real live monitoring. Not to mention all sorts of other measures… deep sleep, rem sleep… all the sleeps. The information was stored in a data recorder, which was collected the following morning, while I was untangled. All that collected data becomes part of the scientific study on sleep with a number of folk from the Healthy Weight Program along with other folk who are not overweight.

I am curious to know the results of the study and interested to see what changes will occur to the results after an eight week exercise program. And in the meantime I have become much more aware of the sleep I am getting, and that in itself is a fairly huge step. When you do something simple, like just keeping a sleep diary, you can quickly see that the one or two late nights a week you think you are getting are actually far closer to se7en late nights a week. Just that awareness helps me to make better sleep decisions at the end of the day… its a start, another new beginning on the Healthy Weight Journey.


I thought that while I am blogging about my excercise journey that you might want to learn about the kind of professionals that I was lucky enough to work with at the Sport Science Institute.

Claudia – Programme Manager

  1. Early bird or night owl?
  2. Former night owl who has changed her ways to become an early bird.

  3. Favourite meal?
  4. Scrambled eggs on toast- I can eat this all day, every day.

  5. Tea or coffee?
  6. Tea. Tea time is my favourite time of day!

  7. Favourite exercise?
  8. The Plank.

  9. Dream holiday?
  10. I love traveling, I think Croatia is next on my list.

  11. What do you love about the Healthy Weight Program?
  12. I love my interactions with both members and the team. The members are incredible, I love how they feed off each other’s energy and how there’s always a strong sense of community, drive and purpose within the group. I love that there’s a genuine support from the team and how everyone who works on the Healthy Weight programme sincerely cares about each member. It makes the programme so much more honest and believable. There is this authentic support and consideration for everyone which I think is very rare and very hard to recreate. Which is why I love being a part of the team.

  13. What have you learnt from working on the Healthy Weight Program?
  14. I’ve learnt that creating a safe and welcoming environment for each member is key. It’s not easy for someone to put themselves out there and give you their trust in that what you tell them or give them to do is the best approach and best practice.

  15. If you had to offer just one healthy tip what would it be?
  16. Back yourself. You’ve made a decision to change your lifestyle for the better. Sometimes friends and family unintentionally try to sabotage you i.e. “it’s just a small piece of cake, it won’t kill you”. Learn to back yourself- you’re the only one who can truly facilitate change.

Clinton – Sport Psychologist

  1. Early bird or night owl?
  2. Definitely the former! Do all my best creating, engaging or exercising in the first half of the day.

  3. Favourite meal?
  4.   Dare I say it… pasta!!? And cheese – especially in a good omelette!

  5. Tea or coffee?
  6. Rooibos

  7. Favourite exercise?
  8. Favourite is to mix it up – little bit of everything, from park run and gym, to playing with kids, tennis, karate, hiking etc.

  9. Dream holiday?
  10. In Cape Town – with absolutely NOTHING on the ‘to do’ list 🙂

  11. What do you love about the Healthy Weight Program?
  12. How it has the power to trigger such positive momentum in ALL areas of people’s lives.

  13. What have you learnt from working on the Healthy Weight Program?
  14. That people are different, and that it’s about figuring out what works best for you personally.

  15. If you had to offer just one healthy tip what would it be?
  16. Not to automatically pick up on someone else’s ‘healthy tip’, but rather to embark on a series of ‘experiments’ to gradually get closer and closer to what is most appropriate to you and your life circumstances.

Rob – Sleep Scientist

Hi, I am Rob, I am a sleep scientist at Sleep Science. If I am not sleeping myself, I am studying sleep and trying my best for others to get the most out of their sleep!

  1. Early bird or night owl?
  2. Definitely an early bird. If I am not in bed by 21h00 I get very grumpy!

  3. Favourite meal?
  4. Pizza and Sushi, and I am not even ashamed of it!

  5. Tea or coffee?
  6. Definitely coffee! More for the taste than for the pep. I love it!

  7. Favourite exercise?
  8. Does sleep count as exercise? Jokes aside, I enjoy running and hiking.

  9. Dream holiday?
  10. In a country or location where I haven’t been before. I love exploring and learning new things.

  11. What do you love about the Healthy Weight Program?
  12. The participants! I am getting to know some of the most awesome people in Cape Town! Every participant has their own story and personality. Because I would go to the homes of those that participate in the Healthy Weight Programme Sleep Study, I sometimes get to meet their families too. Really cool!

  13. What have you learnt from working on the Healthy Weight Program?
  14. I have learned a lot about how the healthy Weight Programme participants sleep and how participating in the healthy weight programme can change sleep. Unfortunately I cannot share the results, because the study has not been completed yet!

  15. If you had to offer just one healthy tip what would it be?
  16. Prioritise sleep! Make decisions throughout the day that help you to get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night (some need more, some need less).

Ryno – Biokineticist

  1. Early bird or night owl?
  2. I’m definitely a Night owl.

  3. Favourite meal?
  4. Favourite meal is a chicken stack; 3 grilled chicken breasts stacked on top of each other with ado, bacon and mozzarella in-between.

  5. Tea or coffee?
  6. Coffee all the way.

  7. Favourite exercise?
  8. Barbell Bent over rows.

  9. Dream holiday?
  10. Exploring all the Hawaiian Islands.

  11. What do you love about the Healthy Weight Program?
  12. Making a difference in peoples’ lives, and changing it for the better.

  13. What have you learnt from working on the Healthy Weight Program?
  14. There’s always more than meets the eye and quick thinking on your feet.

  15. If you had to offer just one healthy tip what would it be?
  16. Drink a glass of water right before you have a meal.

Marie – Dietician

Hi, my name is Marie. I’m a registered dietitian with two kids. I spend my day working at SSISA in between school lifts, extra murals and playdates.

  1. Early bird or night owl?
  2. Early bird.

  3. Favourite meal?
  4. A really good roast with all the trimmings.

  5. Tea or coffee?
  6. Mostly tea, maybe 1 coffee a day.
  7. Favourite exercise?
  8. Pilates and running.

  9. Dream holiday?
  10. At the moment anywhere with just my husband and I would be a real treat.

  11. What do you love about the Healthy Weight Program?
  12. Sharing someone’s happiness when they reach their goals.

  13. What have you learnt from working on the Healthy Weight Program?
  14. Flexibility is very important.

  15. If you had to offer just one healthy tip what would it be?
  16. Eat your fruit and vegetables.

Previous Posts in this Series

I am writing this series to hopefully inspire those moms out there, who have made the same mistakes that I made… Thought I was a lot fitter than I actually was, and who realise that sitting on the couch reading stories to my kids might have been the best thing for my kids at the time, but actually what they needed was a mom who could move and do things with them. Next week I am going to write about my horrific sleep habits and how I eventually overcame them.

Many thanks to the Sport Science Institute of South Africa for providing me with this opportunity to join their Healthy Weight Programme in exchange for honest blogging along the way.

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