Years of scolding from health experts about a good night’s rest may be breaking through.
Americans are finally getting more sleep — about 18 minutes more per weeknight compared with 2003.
It may not sound like much, but researchers say it’s a positive sign.
“If we only got more sleep, we would then see that we actually perform better and would probably be more creative and more productive during the day,” said Dr. Mathias Basner, the associate professor of sleep and chronobiology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and the lead author of the analysis of federal survey data, published this month in the journal “Sleep.”
The incremental gains took place over 13 years. Basner and his colleague, David F. Dinges, found that Americans gained about 1.4 minutes of sleep per weeknight each year between 2003 and 2016.
People also slept more on weekends, though the improvement was not as great — an extra 50 seconds of sleep per weekend night per year, a total gain of about 11 minutes.
On average, Americans get more than eight hours of sleep on weeknights and more on weekends, according to the data. But sleep length varies widely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of adults get insufficient sleep, which it defines as less than seven hours.
Many studies have pointed to the potential health benefits of a good night’s sleep. Poor sleep has been linked to weight gain, focus issues and even an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It can even exacerbate relationship problems.
To prevent those problems and ensure quality sleep, experts suggest limiting screen time before bed, creating a consistent routine, avoiding naps and maintaining a relaxing environment.
“When you enter the bedroom, it should be a sign for your body that it’s time to go to bed,” Basner said.
That’s why he found the results of his analysis so encouraging: The public, it seems, is developing a healthier relationship with sleep.
Americans were able to eke out extra sleep largely by heading to bed sooner and, to a lesser degree, by waking up later, the researchers found.
That changing weeknight bedtime — a shift earlier of 66 seconds each year — was made possible in part by less reading and television watching before bed.
While Americans added about 30 seconds of television watching to their weekday routine each year, they were doing less of it in the hours before bed, freeing themselves to go to sleep a bit earlier, the researchers found. Each year, the number of people who said they watched television or movies before bed on weeknights shrank by about 0.22 percent.
That finding aligns with data from Nielsen, the television research firm, which suggests that Americans are taking more control over how they view shows and movies by watching less live television late at night and more through other means, such as internet-connected devices.
That wasn’t the only reason Americans had more time to sleep. They also dedicated less of their time to a number of activities, including travel to work and school, eating and drinking, housework and consumer purchases.
“These are all activities that you can do nowadays online,” Basner said. “You can do grocery shopping online. You bank online. You can do administrative tasks online.”
While the gains in sleep were significant, they were not universally shared. The researchers, for example, did not find statistically significant gains for the unemployed and others not in the labor force.
The analysis relied on data from more than 180,000 people who participated in the American Time Use Survey, a questionnaire conducted by the Census Bureau about the activities that comprise each respondent’s day.
The responses represent the population aged 15 and older and excluded active military members, prisoners and nursing home residents.