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Batter up! Sleep can improve baseball, other motor skills

Photo: Thomas Soerenes via Flickr

In previous posts, Health Talk has pointed to a number of benefits quality sleep can have on your personal health.

Despite the fact quality sleep can reduce your risk of heart disease, decrease stress and alleviate high blood pressure, sleep is a valued commodity that many people struggle to obtain. Others simply underestimate the affects it can have on their quality of life.

University of Minnesota Physicians sleep expert Michael Howell, M.D., recently investigated the relationship between sleep and human performance, with a focus on athletics in particular.

Howell found that athletic performance is improved by optimizing sleep.

More specifically, by merely extending sleep in subjects, cognitive vigilance and motor reaction time can be improved. For baseball players especially, reaction time is critical. For example, the reaction time for a 95 mph fastball from a regulation pitcher’s mound (60.5 feet) is 0.395 seconds, or faster than a blink of an eye.

This video helps explain it better. If you blink, you could miss the pitch.

If you add poor sleep into the equation, athletic performance can suffer dramatically.

Howell lists five possible strategies that could potentially improve athletic performance in baseball players, many without making dramatic behavioral changes.

  1. Sleep extension – Like a majority of the population, professional athletes are sleep deprived. A recent study took Stanford University basketball players who were in peak physical condition and by simply extending sleep time by two hours, shooting accuracy improved, improved reaction time on vigilance testing, subjective feelings on athletic ability, sleepiness, fatigue and mood all improved.
  2. Correct sleep disordered breathing and related disorders – A recent University of Pittsburgh study found that 20 percent of active NFL players had undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea, many of which were due in part to their large bodies. Sleep disorders are common in young otherwise healthy populations such as professional athletes and unfortunately are unrecognized and mismanaged in a way that could impede athletic performance.
  3. Minimize the use of sedative hypnotic medications – It’s fairly common for people with sleep disorders to use sedation medication such as zolpidem (Ambien) in order to fall asleep and stay asleep. However, these medications affect wakefulness and decrease reaction time. If possible, try to utilize non-pharmacological approaches to insomnia or, if sedation is necessary, try medications with shorter acting agents.
  4. Optimize the timings of practice and sleep – Sleep is a critical component for the consolidation of memory in general and motor memory in particular. A nap immediately following practice or activity may help optimize recovery and “re-wiring” in younger brains.
  5. Improve the long-term health and wellness of professional athletes – Due to the strenuous nature of their job, professional athletes suffer from a variety of chronic ailments. Poor sleep habits along with a combination of lifestyle, injury, medications, etc. help diminish athletes’ overall quality of life. By establishing a healthy sleep pattern earlier on and continuing throughout life, suffering from these ailments and potential for poor quality of life can possibly be avoided.

In addition to baseball, Howell notes that weight lifting and running/sprinting activities can be improved by extending sleep.

For more sleep recommendations from Howell, be sure to watch this recent segment that aired on KMSP-TV.