Small Improvements in Sleep Reap Big Rewards for College Students

Learn how even small increases in sleep duration can improve academic performance and overall health in college students.

By Andrea Pisani Babich

new study out of Penn State showed that by merely trying to increase their sleep by one hour college students made marked improvements in their health, including significantly lowering their blood pressure and their daytime sleepiness scores.

These impressive results, published in Sleep Health, the Journal of the National Sleep Foundation, come after very little coaxing (something like “try to sleep more each night for one week”) and not exactly perfect compliance with researchers’ instructions.

Even though the study’s participants were asked to add at least one hour to their nightly sleep, only 66% of the students increased their sleep by more than 30 minutes. Seventy-seven percent of participants increased their nighttime sleep by more than 15 minutes for an average increase of only 43 additional minutes of sleep.

Still, even with only this modest increase in their sleep duration, participants lowered their systolic blood pressure by seven points, a reduction described as “statistically significant” and “clinically relevant” by Anne-Marie Chang, assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State and a study author. Furthermore, and possibly more important to the participants, extending their nighttime sleep significantly lowered their scores on the Epworth Sleepiness Scale. Even slight increases in their sleep durations made them feel better the next day.

Can College Students Prioritize Sleep? 

The Penn State researchers were equally interested to find out if longer nighttime sleep was feasible for students with daily schedules packed with classes, homework and exam preparation, extracurricular activities, and social engagements. Their study showed that with relatively little effort students were able to increase their sleep, not as much as recommended but enough to make observable and significant improvements in their health and wellbeing.

“Not getting enough sleep is a real problem for students,” Chang said, “and I think we’ve shown that given the opportunity, education and encouragement, college students can change the way they prioritize sleep.”

Sleep Crisis among College Students

Sleep deprivation is a way of life for many college students. According to an article published in Nature and Science of Sleep, sleep deprivation runs rampant on college campuses. One survey found that as much as 50% of college students report daytime sleepiness and less than 30% get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep. And the consequences of this sleep crisis among college students include more than their feeling cranky.

Compromised learning along with its attendant decrease in grade point averages and increased risk of academic failure are just some of the problems students face when they don’t sleep enough.

Other health impacts from lack of sleep include

And there are emotional and financial costs to college students’ losing sleep at night. Many sleepy students find they cannot stay awake during their classes leading not only to missed opportunities for learning but also tuition money down the drain. According to a Mattress Advisor survey of 1,000 college students, the average student wastes nearly $400 of their tuition per semester by sleeping in class. Not to mention the remorse students feel when they find they’ve missed an important lecture, snored out loud, or been called out by an indignant professor.

Students Can Help Themselves Sleep Better

As the Penn State study showed, just a little improvement in nighttime sleep can reap big benefits for health and wellbeing. Once students realize how important sleep is to their health, their GPA, and their parents’ wallets, they might shed their cavalier attitudes toward their sleep requirements and actually focus on getting the rest they need.

So, what can weary and beleaguered college students do to get more sleep? Here are 52 Things College Students Can Do to Get Better Sleep. But don’t read close to your bedtime! Blue light from your computer will disrupt your melatonin production and mess with your sleep cycles. Now, set your bedtime reminder to nine hours before you need to get up tomorrow and heed its advice.

Not convinced? Try adding one more hour to your sleep schedule (do you have a sleep schedule?) for just one week. Take note of how you feel and how well you perform in school and/or the athlete field. Let us know how you do in the comments below.

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