Here's a simple quality-of-life question: If you had 30 minutes of extra unexpected free time in your day, would you use it for sleep or exercise?
I asked this last week to friends and colleagues, and they all said the same thing: "Who in the hell has these 30 minutes of free time, and are their companies hiring?" And then they went back to commuting and making lunches for their kids and responding to work emails at 5:15 a.m. and, in the scattered fragments of time they had left, interacted with friends and families and people they wanted to smooch.
It's a fair point: You are probably reading this while engaged in one to 12 other activities simultaneously; it's not like we have canyons of blank space in our Google Calendars. But let's imagine a world with less connectivity, fewer demands on our time and no sleep debts. Here's an overview of what nutrition and fitness big-shots think you should do if you accidentally find yourself with what sociologists used to call "free time." (Spoiler alert: They reached no consensus whatsoever.)
Dawn Jackson Blatner, nutritionist consultant for the Chicago Cubs:
"For most people, I'd encourage moderate exercise, which will lead to better-quality sleep. Prioritizing seven hours of sleep a night is critical to leading a productive and creative life."
Aaron Ruth, sports performance specialist at St. Vincent's Sports Performance in Indianapolis:
" Personally, I'd use the extra 30 [minutes] to get some movement in and kick my metabolism and bodily functions into gear. Do I do that every day? Not really. But in my own life, 30 minutes of sleep never made a huge difference. It's not like two hours. You get more bang for your buck with exercise— you can get a really good workout in 30 minutes, but an extra 30 minutes of sleep won't necessarily give you a lot of extra energy.
Jim White, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:
"Well, I'm a fitness guy, so you'd think I'd say fitness. But I always take sleep first. There are just so many studies showing the benefits of sleep. If you're tired, you'll be more likely to skip your workout. Your body will produce the hunger hormone leptin, which can lead to overeating. You'll be restless and in a worse mood. You won't give your body a chance to heal its muscles. But it's a tough question, especially since it's just a half hour. If it's the difference between getting nine hours of sleep and eight and a half, that's one thing. But if you're in the six- to seven-hour window, it makes a big difference.
Carissa Bealert, dietitian, personal trainer, and owner of Evolution Fitness Orlando:
"If you're sick, feeling run-down or especially stressed, get the sleep. Your body needs to repair itself, and your mind needs to get back to zero. But if we're talking about normal circumstances, the health benefits of a workout will be far greater."
Kim Dolan Leto, director of family health and wellness for the International Sports Sciences Association:
"Well, it depends. According to the CDC, 40 percent of Americans are sleep-deprived. When you don't get enough sleep, your metabolism doesn't function properly, and that drives up carbohydrate cravings and caffeine consumption over time— which also means your weight. A minimum of seven and a half hours of sleep is required for optimal health. If you're getting enough sleep, hit the gym. Ideally, you'll get to a point where you're able to do both."