My teen started his wrestling season with an injury that required sutures and ended the season with an injury that took him out of the running for 3rd in the PTC. He is only one of many teens to incur injuries in every sport, every season - and thankfully his were relatively minor. Worries about more serious things like fractures and concussions keep many parents and coaches awake at night, which is ironic considering that sleep deprivation may play a significant role in injuries among student athletes.
At the American Academy of Pediatrics national conference in October, Dr. Mathew Milewksi reported that teens who are chronically sleep-deprived experience 68% more sports injuries than their teammates who obtain more sleep, a correlation not expected by his research team. "We were surprised to find that sleep played such an important role in athletic injury," Dr. Milewski is quoted in a Reuters interview. "We thought that having a private coach and doing sports outside of school and doing sports more often would increase the rates of injury, not the lack of sleep."
Many sleep experts, however, are not surprised by that study. They know that sleep plays a vital role for humans – particularly among still-growing youth. We utilize sleep to reorganize and fine-tune cognitive functioning (neuronal ‘plasticity’ has recently been examined in relation to sleep), and during sleep we release growth hormones and engage in tissue repair. If you want to function like a well-oiled machine and bounce back like a fresh new rubber band you need your sleep. Athletes (and non-athletes) who obtain good sleep are more coordinated, faster, stronger, and heal better. They also have better impulse control and engage in better decision-making due to increased metabolic activity in the pre-frontal region of the brain.
So is the answer to put my teen to bed earlier? Unfortunately it’s not that simple. In the last two decades researchers discovered that during puberty our adolescents experience a temporary later shift in their circadian rhythm. Because of this ‘phase-delay’ my son tosses and turns until around 11pm. There’s no TV in his room, no cell phone, he doesn’t pound a Red Bull or eat a bag of candy at 6pm, and we don’t have him jog around the block at 8pm. I even shine a $270.00 therapy light on him while he’s eating his breakfast to try to fool his pineal gland into a non-pubertal pattern. Like most American households the problem isn’t bad sleep hygiene or being a bad mother, it’s battling Mother Nature.
I do the math nearly every night: I know that adolescents require 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep for optimum health. I know that my son’s school starts before 7:30am. I know the bus comes at 6:35. I know that when I wake him up at 6am he has gotten only 7 hours of sleep. I know that 91.8% of teens with school start times before 8:30 am are chronically sleep deprived and average 6.75 hours of
sleep on school nights. I know that teens who sleep more than 2 hours later than usual on the weekend experience ‘jet lag’ effects and have higher rates of grade failure – so I know that weekend catch-up is not the answer.
I do know, however, that moving middle and high school start times to one hour later could increase that average to 7.75 hours. Despite assumptions that later start times would result in kids going to bed later at night, study after study after study shows that when schools adopt healthier start times the kids get more sleep.
And a 68% reduction in sports injuries is worth any change our schools can make.
People often oppose changing school start times due to the possible negative effect on athletics – particularly practice schedules. To get the straight scoop I e-mailed Athletics Directors from schools around the country that adopted later start times to ask them how much it impacted sports, and I was pleasantly surprised by the comments that ranged from ‘it worked out better than we anticipated’ to ‘our teams are among the best in the state’. In Fayette County, Kentucky, where high schools moved from 7:30 am to 8:30 am and in the two years afterwards the county noted a reduction in teen auto accidents, the AD told me the time change ‘has never been an issue’. In St. George’s school, which hosts 48 teams in 22 sports and most students are required to participate in 2 sports per season, the AD told me the change was ‘one of the best things our school has ever done’ – a sentiment echoed by administration and teachers given the documented improvement in attention and grades.
People are surprised and sometimes skeptical that improving sleep can do so much. But when we consider the fact that we spend 1/3 of our life in this state it must be important – and researchers are proving that importance with more and more studies every month.
A Northeast Ohio petition at SignOn.org is asking our schools to talk about the math: http://signon.org/sign/start-portage-county.fb23?source=s.icn.fb&r_by=6059954. The petition simply asks our schools to form committees to discuss the research - similar to what has been done in Duxbury, Parma and Hudson.
For more information on the research: