Healthy Mind

Feeling Clumsy? Turns Out You’ll Walk More Smoothly if You Catch Up on Sleep

Erica Sloan

Getty Images/Westend61
For people who walk, doing so can seem like something mindless or reflexive, not unlike, say, breathing or swallowing. But while you’re almost certainly not thinking about the timing or distance of your next footfall while taking a neighborhood stroll or cruising through the grocery store, new research suggests that walking actually might not be so automatic; it could even require elements of cognition that hinge on getting adequate sleep. As a result, the effect of sleep deprivation could very well put a wobble in your walk.

While it may seem logical that anyone would be more likely to stub their toe or trip and fall when they’re feeling sleepy, this new small study, published on October 26, identified a clear link between lack of sleep and a person’s ability to control their stride or gait, even days later.

To draw this connection, the researchers enlisted 30 students and equipped them with activity trackers for 14 days (and all students turned out to be mildly sleep-deprived, clocking about six hours per night, on average). Though they weren’t instructed on how to sleep, some made up for weekday sleep loss on the two weekends within the study time frame, while others did not. And of the total, 10 people were randomly selected to spend an all-nighter in the sleep lab on the final night of the research window. Then, on the last day, everyone completed a treadmill test where they had to step to the beat of a metronome—which was subtly sped up and slowed down. The result? A direct correlation emerged between how sleep-deprived a participant was and how poorly they performed on the treadmill test.

"[The participants] had to synchronize their heel strike to the beat [of a metronome], and we found the errors were larger in people with acute sleep deprivation." —mechanical engineer Arturo Forner-Cordero, PhD

"They had to synchronize their heel strike to the beat, and we found the errors were larger in people with acute sleep deprivation," lead author on the study and mechanical engineer Arturo Forner-Cordero, PhD, associate professor and head of the Biomechatronics Lab at the University of São Paulo, told Science Daily, in reference to the participants who stayed up the entire night before the walking test: "They were off the rhythm, they missed beeps, and were performing in general, worse."

But what’s perhaps more interesting is the difference among the remaining participants: Although both of the other groups were coming off two weeks of chronic sleep deprivation, the group who caught up on some shut-eye over both weekends in the study stepped to the beat more successfully than the group who didn’t. "Even at the peak of when most people would be tired, this compensating group did better, which we didn't expect," says Dr. Forner-Cordero.

Being able to mitigate the effect of sleep deprivation on gait or walk control in this way is a compelling reason to consider repaying any sleep debt on weekends or off days—and this isn’t the first evidence to support that, either. A 2018 study reviewing the sleep habits and mortality rates of 38,000 adults in Sweden over the course of 13 years found that those people who clocked five hours of sleep per night, on average, during the weekdays and then caught up on weekends experienced the same mortality rate as those who regularly slept six or seven hours per night—and that was 65 percent lower than the folks who averaged five hours per night, and didn’t compensate on weekends.

So, while any sleep doctor will tell you that getting around seven hours of sleep per night is the gold standard—and doing it consistently is even better—catching up when deprivation happens is still very much a worthy endeavor. In this case, there’s evidence that you’ll at least be operating from a place of less total sleep deprivation, which, as it turns out, can improve your gait and cut your chances of taking a tumble mid-stride.

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