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Waking up at 6 AM every weekend? There might be something healthy going on.

Much to my dismay, at 6:00 every morning my Italian Greyhound Pip nudges me awake, so that I can feed him. Not at 5:55 or 6:05, but at 6:00, on the dot, every morning. His inner alarm bell starts ringing, and it becomes critical that he has his breakfast. Pip is nothing if not a model of regularity. He’s also a model sleeper, an excellent squirrel chaser, and, most importantly, is filled with joy every single day. What does Pip know that I don’t? Probably many things, but one in particular is how important routine is in our daily lives.

As any parent will attest, a routine is paramount for achieving a successful bedtime with children. Even beyond helping to make the transition to bedtime easier, routines during early childhood are related to better cognitive performance and reduced behavior problems. However, achieving this consistency is easier said than done. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s own 2014 Sleep in America Poll, only about half of children under age 11 had consistent bed and wake times. The good news is that after investing the initial effort to establish regular bed and wake times, your child’s body clock will automatically align with a regular schedule.

What about for adults? How critical is maintaining a daily routine for our well-being? It turns out that, like Pip, our bodies crave consistency. With regular daily activities, our various body systems are able to prepare for and anticipate events. We naturally become more alert closer to our wake-up time. Our digestive systems become activated in advance of regular meal times in order to more efficiently process food. We start to relax and become sleepy prior to bedtimes. It turns out that these regular daily events serve to anchor our underlying daily rhythms.

Maintaining a daily routine is just as important when we transition to the later years of life. Aging is associated with many occupational, social, and health changes. With retirement and changing social and family obligations, older adults may have fewer “anchors” in their daily lives to help them maintain a regular schedule. Despite these changes, research suggests that older adults are particularly good at maintaining a regular schedule. In fact, being older is associated with greater lifestyle regularity compared to younger and middle-aged adults. Furthermore, this regularity appears to be adaptive by helping older adults sleep better and recover more quickly from losses.

So, although Pip and I differ in many ways (e.g., he has fur and a tail), I think it’s safe to say that we’re alike in at least one way. We both can benefit from a regular routine. If only I could serve breakfast a little later in the day!

 

Natalie Dautovich

Natalie Dautovich, Ph.D., is the National Sleep Foundation's Environmental Scholar. She is also appointed at Virginia Commonwealth University as an Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology in the Department of Psychology. She received her doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Florida and completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of South Florida. Dr. Dautovich’s research focuses on behavioral sleep medicine and geropsychology. Specifically, she studies sleep and behavioral rhythms such as daily routines across the adult lifespan. She has published articles, book chapters, and a handbook on sleep and health and presented her research at national conferences.

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