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Can Making Up For Lost Sleep Curb Clumsiness?

Medically reviewed by Smita Patel, DO, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 19, 2023

When you don’t get enough sleep, the rest of your life really suffers. Being overly tired at work means you could have trouble understanding information you read or remembering the things you are told. At home, you may be more irritable and more likely to get into arguments with loved ones. Insufficient sleep has been linked to an increased risk for stroke, heart disease, obesity, and a host of other health concerns. Now we can add walking to the growing list of things affected by our sleep. A new study not only connects walking with sleep but even answers the question: Can making up for lost sleep curb clumsiness?


Walking and the Mind 


Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how we walk. Unless you’re a speed walker or a power walker, walking is, let’s face it, pretty pedestrian. The only time most of us give much thought to walking is when we stumble. Even scientists once viewed walking as an automatic function. Put a four-legged animal on a treadmill, and most of the action takes place in the spine –– by reflex –– rather than in their brains. Researchers were less certain about how much thought goes into walking for us two-legged creatures. 


Determining how much conscious thought we put into our steps was one component of ongoing research conducted by Hermano Krebs, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in collaboration with the University Hospital of the University of São Paulo, Brazil. As they examined how conscious thought can exert control over our steps, they decided to examine how lack of sleep can affect our gait. The reason? Their study was being conducted at the Brazilian university and most of their subjects were students. As final exams approached, the students were often exhausted. Many had pulled all-nighters –– although multiple studies have shown that staying up all night before an exam is not only unhealthy but generally ineffective.


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Sleep - Biological Implications

Sleep - Biological Implications

Our gait, or the way we walk, is an indicator of our health. One recent study demonstrated that fast-walkers have lower mortality risk than slow walkers. To see how sleep disturbances affected walking performance, the research team employed a metronome and instructed their subjects to follow its beat while walking on a treadmill. Then the tricky scientists added a wrinkle –– without letting the students know what was happening, they adjusted the metronome’s speed. The best-rested students caught on quickly. The most exhausted had less rhythm than a gorilla at a wedding dance. 


Sleep Helps You Walk


Tired students fell into two categories. Some were suffering from acute sleep deprivation, meaning they’d had one bad night’s sleep such as after pulling an all-night study session. Others were chronically sleep deprived. They consistently had less than six hours of sleep per night. Yet in both categories researchers uncovered a surprising insight. The student’s performance improved if they had caught up on sleep during the weekend. 


Most of us enter the dream-heavy rapid-eye movement state of sleep three or four times per night. Both REM and non-REM sleep are incredibly restorative. To perform optimally during the day, most experts suggest adults get at least seven hours per night. There is some controversy about whether or not daytime naps can be added into the mix. Generally they are beneficial for our health, but recent research shows they may not stave off a precursor of Alzheimer’s disease which accumulates in people who are chronically sleep deprived. 


However, the São Paulo study suggests that getting extra sleep over the weekend (or napping during the day) can reduce our clumsiness. This is about more than taking a pratfall at the grocer’s. For tired shift workers in a warehouse, getting a cat nap may help prevent a life-threatening mistake. And for the rest of us, the study suggests that when it comes to walking tall a few extra Sunday zzzzs can make a real difference.


Written by John Bankston

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