Does Yoga Help With Low Back Pain?

Michael Ferraro
3 min read

Over the course of our lives, almost all of us will experience low back pain. And when we do, many of us will have someone telling us that we should be engaging in physical activity to relieve it.

Yoga is one of the most common forms of exercise to treat low back pain, particularly when it persists. There are many explanations for the proposed therapeutic effects of yoga – increased muscular flexibility and strength, increased physical and mental relaxation, and improved body awareness. People who do yoga to help with low back pain often report that it is helpful; but what does the science tell us?

A recently published gold standard review sought to answer this question. 

The review authors looked at all studies that compared yoga to another treatment, or no treatment at all in people with ‘chronic’ low back pain – that is, low back pain that persists for three months or more. The study aimed to determine whether yoga is beneficial for:

  1. low back pain intensity, 
  2. back-related function (things like the ability to walk or perform house chores), and 
  3. mental and physical quality of life.

A total of 21 studies were included in the review. Studies were conducted in the USA, Canada, Croatia, Germany, Sweden and Turkey and mostly investigated iyengar, hatha, or viniyoga yoga practices. Most of the study participants were women aged between 40 and 50 years.

So what did the authors find? 

Well, compared with doing nothing at all, a three-month course of yoga probably reduces low back pain and improves low back-related function. The catch is that these benefits may be too small to meaningfully change the impact low back pain has on one’s life. 

Ok, so doing yoga is a little better than doing nothing – unremarkable, I know! But is yoga better than doing other types of exercise for low back pain?

The authors concluded that there is probably little to no difference between yoga and other forms of back-specific exercises (think core training and physiotherapy rehabilitation exercises) on function. This is great news for those who don’t want to drop their sweaty Bikram class for an hour of pelvic floor exercises at the physio.

You might be one of the people that has indeed tried yoga for their back pain, but only found that it made it worse. Interestingly, exacerbation of back pain was the most commonly reported harm in these studies. The risk of an exacerbation was higher for yoga than for no yoga, but there was no difference in risk between yoga and other exercise forms. 

So, how do we make sense of this information? 

We know that exercise is beneficial for low back pain. While it seems that yoga only provides minimal benefits for low back pain, there is good reason to do it – for many people across the globe it is the only form of regular exercise they can adhere to. If yoga is not your cup of tea, there is no need to despair! Performing any form of exercise is likely to be beneficial for both your musculoskeletal and general health.

Michael Ferraro is a clinical researcher at the Centre for Pain IMPACT at Neuroscience Research Australia. 

His research is centred around the identification, development and evaluation of treatments for chronic pain, with a specific focus on rare pain conditions. You can follow Michael’s research on Google Scholar or Twitter.

Michael is part of the Good Mood Dudes network of experts available to support your wellbeing program. If you want to soundboard your wellbeing plan or hear how we’d get your program up and running, get in touch with our team for a complimentary strategy call today. 

What Employees Want

Good Mood Dudes founder Dr. Nicholas Chartres, sits down with The Guardian to discuss the new landscape of work/life balance and what employees expect from their workplace.

As featured in:

With the dust starting to settle after almost 3 years of disruption to our way of life due to Covid-19, evidence of what employees expect in the workplace is now becoming clear. 

While the transition to working from home came with its challenges as employees and employers had to conform to Covid-19 restrictions, what’s emerged is a new way to think about work-life balance. People are now seeking flexible work hours, healthier work environments, and autonomy in their roles over less valuable employee ‘perks’. Good Mood Dudes’ Dr Nick Chartres says “In most businesses right now, it’s all about autonomy and flexibility: the autonomy to select how many days in which people are going into the office, as well as the flexibility to adjust that on a week by week basis”.

But autonomy and flexibility are not the only important things people are seeking. “Natural light, fresh air, and end-of-trip facilities – so people can ride into work or go to the gym at lunchtime – are now pretty much mandatory for a lot of companies,” says Chartres. “Being close to public transport, supermarkets, gyms, parks, and green space is also great.” A workplace that makes the commute to work shorter and easier with the physical destination also being a place of comfort is a top request by employees today. 

Experts suggest that many people are now wanting to walk or cycle to work and when they arrive they want the office environment to offer an enjoyable experience that allows them to work effectively in comfort. Whilst psychosocial factors of company culture can impact the comfort of an employee in an office environment, things like having privacy to focus as well as spaces that support collaboration and interaction with teams are crucial.

Whilst the voices of those who prefer a more laissez-faire approach to leadership are being heard, it is important to remember that every employee is different and will have different needs when it comes to being able to work most effectively. 

If you’re looking to support your employees and are not sure where to start, book a strategy call with us today.

These harrowing cancer statistics can actually be good news. Wait, what?

In this opinion piece, Good Mood Dudes founder Dr. Nicholas Chartres provides his view on this article: These harrowing cancer statistics can actually be good news


When I first read this headline, I assumed that this article was going to discuss new government regulations on industry (alcohol in this instance), spurred by more unequivocal evidence on the already established health effects caused by harmful products like alcohol.

Instead, the story focused on what the individual can do to change their behaviour, with education being a key component of that behaviour change.

Seems reasonable, I hear you say.

Let me explain the shortcomings of this approach and why it is the narrative that the industries that produce these harmful products love to see published.

While the story points to the fact that smoking rates in Australia have dropped from 24% in 1995 to 11% in 2021, this was not done through education campaigns alone. It took an aggressive suite of regulatory measures for this to occur. These included an increase in sales taxes, a complete ban on advertising and marketing (sports advertising was one of the first to go), and the introduction of plain packaging, coupled with aggressive graphic health warnings by the Australian government.

Government action must be part of the solution.

I study the commercial determinants of health. This includes the strategies that industries like tobacco, alcohol, packaged food, and fossil fuels use to sell their products, as well as the political and economic systems that they operate within.

As economic globalization has intensified over the last two decades, these determinants of health have not only become the leading cause of disease but have also created health inequities within and across countries. For example, communities of color and low-income communities have experienced disproportionate consequences and impacts on their health due to either higher consumption rates of alcohol, tobacco, and ultra-processed foods or higher rates of exposure to toxic air pollution (due to the combustion of fossil fuels) and chemicals.

These industries use a suite of tactics aimed at preventing government regulation, which includes distorting the science on the human and planetary health effects of their products, undermining the policy process via lobbying, and shaping the narrative on their brands and products through evocative marketing and corporate social responsibility campaigns.

Now I love a beer and a pie at the footy. However, it’s vital that stories covering chronic health statistics should not be presented as a “really good news story” without being accompanied by perspectives addressing the need for government regulation to implement strategies like those mentioned above which have proven successful in tobacco control.

Without strong government action, these statistics will continue to increase, and I cannot see the silver lining in that.


Dr Nicholas Chartres is the Director of Science & Policy at the University of California, San Francisco working with the Program of Reproductive Health and the Environment. His work focuses on US federal chemical policy and regulation.

Nick received his PhD from The University of Sydney, where his thesis examined ways to reduce bias in public health guidelines, including the primary studies that are used in our national Dietary Guidelines. Nick also has a Masters in Nutrition.

Fast Food & Sports Stars Don’t Mix

In this opinion piece, Good Mood Dudes founder Dr. Nicholas Chartres provides his view on this article: GP-turned-MP to demand action on junk food advertising


Kids love sports stars.

They buy the shoes and clothes they wear, the cricket bats they use and the sports drinks they drink.

Therefore, a new bill to stop junk food sponsorship of children’s sport and ads shown during prime-time television like 20/20 cricket, when kids are watching with their families, is a welcome move to help reduce the number of overweight and obese Australian children.

We know from the success of smoking cessation rates globally that advertising, especially via mass media, is one of the most pervasive ways that companies can increase sales and consumption of their harmful products. If we cut advertising, we cut consumption and we can cut the resulting rates of disease that are caused by these harmful products.

Although advertisements for unhealthy foods and drinks are banned during broadcasts of television programs made for pre-schoolers, the average 5-8 old is still being exposed to more than 800 junk food television ads a year. Currently, the federal government has allowed the food industry to govern itself through a self-regulatory code, with junk food companies arguing that they are not advertising to children by sponsoring their sports because they only use their brand names and not pictures of their products.

However, the food industry knows that kids look up to sports stars and they still have a significant opportunity to get our kids hooked on their ultra-processed foods. If Australian men’s cricket captain Pat Cummins can eat KFC and still be one of the best athletes in the world, why wouldn’t an 8-year-old think that he can do the same?

It’s time to get serious and properly protect our children by banning all junk food advertising from sport.


Dr Nicholas Chartres is the Director of Science & Policy at the University of California, San Francisco working with the Program of Reproductive Health and the Environment. His work focuses on US federal chemical policy and regulation.

Nick received his PhD from The University of Sydney, where his thesis examined ways to reduce bias in public health guidelines, including the primary studies that are used in our national Dietary Guidelines. Nick also has a Masters in Nutrition.

Expert Q&A: Introducing Dr Kate Edwards

1) Could you tell us a little about your career and areas of expertise/interest? 

My research career has been in looking at how exercise affects health through its actions on immune function. My PhD and early work focused on vaccinations and how exercise can boost your immune response and reduce the adverse effects you experience. In recent years I’ve also developed a line of work in oncology, using exercise to improve treatment outcomes during chemo and immunotherapy, and again, reducing the side effects of treatment (exercise really is a wonder drug!).


2) What drew you to this line of work/research in the first place? 

I studied Biochemistry at University but by the end of my degree wanted to get out of ‘the petri dish’. I found that I loved the study and life at uni but wanted to do things that everyone on every corner of the street could relate to. That’s how I found myself doing a PhD in a Sport Science department, they liked me as I brought lab skills to measurements from experiments, and I liked it as I got to work with real-life people. After PhD I had an opportunity to work in research in California for a few years, and about 10 years ago moved here to Sydney to teach and research in my current position. Some could say I’d followed the sun, but it’s not hard to find more than I used to see in England.


3) How do you look after your own physical and mental wellbeing?

A long time ago I played international-level sport, so exercise and sport have been part of my life forever. Sport looks after a lot of my wellbeing because of the social support and interaction that it provides as well as the running around. Whenever moving to a new place (and I’ve done that a lot) the way I made friends was to join a team. Exercise training for a long time was what I did to help me play sport, but now it’s a habit, I feel worse if I’m not moving, which motivates me to move!  


4) Do you have a favourite post-workout cafe?

No, I’m a universal coffee lover, I enjoy an instant coffee and a real one similarly!


5) What is one thing you wish people knew about wellbeing? 

Exercise does as much for mental health as it does for physical health.


6) What is one of the most ridiculous things you’ve read or seen about wellbeing that you know to be untrue?

Current discussions about vaccination safety is a hot-bed of miss-truths and misunderstanding.


7) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or websites on health or wellbeing that you’d recommend?

Current hot topic is ‘The Long Shot’ discussing the development of the COVID vaccinations, and I often find gems of episodes among the RadioLab series.


8) What is your top tip for living a healthy and happy life? 

Most of the time Grandma was right – meals are best home-made, eat/drink everything in moderation, and walk everyday and you’ll do pretty well.


Staying Healthy at Home

Many Australians are presently working from home. Cutting the travel time to and from work provide opportunities to spend that time doing other things we wouldn’t ordinarily have time for. But working at home can be a disruption to normal routines that we all tend to thrive on. One of the most common sentiments I hear as extended holidays draw to a close is that many actually look forward to having the routine that the work life brings. Lack of regularity is just one of several challenges being house bound presents us. With that in mind, I offer six suggestions to stay healthy and sane whist working from home for this next, unspecified period of time.


  1. Keep a regular sleep/wake schedule: Not having to wake up at a specific time to catch the bus to work and merely having to open the computer to start our day can allure us into creating haphazard sleeping schedules. Humans have evolved to keep regular sleep/wake, light/dark rhythms that rewards us with vitality, productivity and energy when we observe these regular sleep-wake cycles. This period of physical isolation allows us to firmly entrench an 8-hour sleep opportunity and circadian rhythm that we might never have again, as going out to restaurants and other entertainment is off the cards for the foreseeable future. Decide what time you would like to wake each day, work back 8-hours, allowing an extra 30 or so minutes for wind down, shower, intimacy and so on. Remembering to use bright lights in the morning hours and dim light in the period before bed. Then stick to this schedule every day. 


  1. Respect work/life balance: in our parents and grandparent’s day, for the vast majority, there were no mobile phones, computers and internet. Once the work day was done, adults did not go home and keep working until all hours.  Now that we are house bound and have access to emails on our phones, there can be a strong temptation to essentially work 7 days a week, without truly respecting down time. It would be wise to maintain ‘office hours’ and ‘personal hours’, where, during the latter, the phone and computer are off to work and on to family, friends and entertainment. 


  1. Set an exercise schedule: just as we have group exercise classes, personal training and running clubs, keeping a scheduled daily exercise regime (especially in the morning before work hours) is critical to maintaining momentum and not falling off the bandwagon during this time we are at home. Here are several suggestions:
  • Talking a 5 to 10-minute walk after meals aids blood sugar control and the energy slump we often get mid-afternoon. This is a very little time investment but has a huge potentially to make us feel great and energised;
  • Aim to walk in nature several times a week, so we don’t develop cabin fever from doing everything indoors.
  • Exercise every day and alternate hard (see next point) with easy sessions, such as walking and jogging;
  • Use time efficient modes of interval training, such as stair or hill runs, as the ‘hard’ sessions. Aim to accumulate at least 10 minutes of high-intensity work in these sessions. After a 5-minute warm-up, finding a hill or stairs it takes about a minute to reach the top, tackle these 10 times with a slow walk back down. Skipping is another tremendous exercise mode, where you would aim to do a similar workout (10 x 60-seconds of skipping with, say, 30-seconds rest in between);
  • Set up a body weight circuit three times a week. An example of a circuit might be: squats, push-ups, lunges, abdominal planks and skipping. Do each exercise for 60-seconds, moving quickly on to the next exercise. Rest a minute at the end of the circuit, and perform five rounds of the circuit, 


  1. Use house bound time wisely: This unusual time provides us with the perfect opportunity to work on aspects of health and fitness that we do no ordinarily have time for, such as stretching, trigger point work or foam rolling, deep breathing and meditation. It can be as simple as a 5-minute stretch, foam roll or deep breathing while you make your morning coffee or tea. It’s another healthy habit that takes basically no extra time from your day but doing it regularly will make you feel great.


  1. Be mindful of eating ‘as something to do’: Most people working from home have already worked this out – we eat because we are bored, procrastinating or as something to do. So that we all don’t gain unwanted weight over this time, it would be helpful to set an eating schedule that we stick to every day and avoid mindless walks into the kitchen to snack.


  1. Stay connected: It has already been observed that the phase ‘social distancing’ is unhelpful and the term ‘physical distancing’ might be more appropriate. We are very used to seeing people at work, on the bus or after work. This, for the time being, has largely stopped. Rather than just texting people, make the time during ‘personal hours’ try to use FaceTime, Skype and Zoom as a way of connecting with others, especially those really affected by isolation, such as the elderly. Try to call people as well, rather than texting. In this way, those who are more affected by physical distancing will feel a much greater sense of connection, which is far better for everyone’s mental health.


Dr Tony Boutagy is an Exercise Physiologist with a PhD in exercise and sports science from Charles Darwin University. He’s conducted over 50,000 training sessions in his career that has spanned 25 years, and is regarded as one of the premier personal trainers in the country. 

Expert Q&A: Introducing Dr Kieron Rooney

1) Could you tell us a little about your career and areas of expertise/interest? 

My day job entails conducting research and teaching on how what we eat, influences our metabolism. This work includes investigating for example, the influence of lower carbohydrate and higher fat diets in diabetes and obesity as well as on measures of performance in normal healthy individuals. I’ve also completed work on the role of high sugar diets in altering health status and the potential for non-nutritive sweeteners to assist recovery in diets focused on lowering sugar intake. I completed a PhD in Biochemistry in 2003 and since then have been an academic at the University of Sydney.


2) What drew you to this line of work/research in the first place? 

To be honest, it was the only thing I was good at at University. I squandered most of my first year enjoying the freedoms that University Student life brought. However, by second and third year I found myself intrigued by metabolic biochemistry and the way in which our entire system is integrated to utilise the energy of food we eat and how our behaviors may change to seek out specific foods. Through the course of my PhD and then academic life, the relationship between what we eat, how we eat it and our health fascinated me.


3) How do you look after your own physical and mental wellbeing?

I wax and wane. Periods of control and periods of laziness. I like to convince myself it is all by design. But to be honest sometimes I have all the energy in the world to commit to health and sometimes sleeping in, having an extra drink and getting take away feels like the right thing to do. When I am committed, there are 3 – 4, 7km runs a fortnight interspersed with some weights on alternate days and more often than not there are 10-11 home cooked dinners in that fortnight with leftovers for lunches. I typically avoid sugar sweetened beverages, and opt for extra veges over “passenger carbs” like bread and pasta 


4) Do you have a favourite post-workout cafe?

Not really, since most of my runs and weights workouts are at home. But if you are in the Balmain / Birchgrove area The Gladstone Corner store does a great long black.


5) What is one thing you wish people knew about wellbeing? 

It takes a conscious effort to find it, grow it and keep it. And a subconscious effort to lose it.


6) What is one of the most ridiculous things you’ve read or seen about wellbeing that you know to be untrue?

That you have to cut the fat off your meat to make it healthy.


7) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or websites on health or wellbeing that you’d recommend?

I really enjoyed “the art and science of low carb living” and “The case against sugar” otherwise I am somewhat of an online itinerant.


8) What is your top tip for living a healthy and happy life? 

Every sugary drink is doing you harm


The Stages of Change

People know that smoking is bad for their health, but still choose to smoke. People know they ‘should’ go for that run, but still choose to sleep in. People know that the McDonalds drive through is not the healthiest option for dinner, but still use it on a Friday night after work. People are informed and educated around healthy behavioural choices, however still make unhealthy choices. Even when an individual has a serious health scare, they still may not want to change or know how to change the behaviours that have led them to their condition. 

The Transtheoretical Model (Stages of Change) can explain why. 

Social psychological research into dietary change and levels of physical activity are often the forgotten piece in understanding how to promote healthy behavioural change, long term. 

Health Behaviour Models

The contribution of social psychology is now becoming more and more influential in affecting long term dietary and exercise change. The most important contribution has been the advancement and application of various health behaviour models to initiate and promote change.

Some of the most popular models of health behaviour include: the health belief model; social cognitive theory; protection motivation theory; the theory of planned behaviour; and finally, and importantly, the transtheoretical model of change.

The Transtheoretical Model of Change (Stages of Change Model)

Developed by Prochaska and DiClemente, the model’s central concept is that all individuals pass through similar stages of change regardless of the problematic behaviour that they are trying to change.

These stages are:

  1. Pre-contemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance

With relapse common in the attempt to maintain any new behaviour.

Think of a current behaviour in your life that is potentially unhealthy. It doesn’t need to be anything too sinister; perhaps your partner has been telling you to drink less wine during the week, or you’re staying up past midnight binging on Netflix, or you’ve only exercised once in the past month. Look at each stage outlined below and see if you can identify which stage you are currently in, where you have been, and most importantly, where you would like to be!

Pre-contemplation: This is where a person has little to no awareness that their current behaviour is unhealthy or problematic. People in the pre-contemplation stage have no intention to change their behaviour in the foreseeable future. This is your husband or wife who you have desperately wanted to exercise for the past ten years, and despite your every attempt to change his or her behaviour, they haven’t even walked past the gym!! They’re thinking… “What problem?! It’s not a problem!”

Contemplation: This is where a person is thinking about making a change, but they haven’t yet taken any kind of action. This may have been you before joining the gym. People in contemplation see the advantages and disadvantages of their problematic behaviour… “I know that half a bottle of red wine each night isn’t great for my waist line, but it really helps me to relax once the kids have gone to bed.” Sound familiar?! 

Preparation: This is the third stage where a person shows intent to act and has gone about planning for changing their behaviour. This may have been you when you hired a personal trainer and started arranging for a regular time to be available in your week for exercise. 

Action: Once a person is engaging in their new healthy behaviour, they are in action. For example, doing your first exercise session!! This is also known as the “doing” stage.

Maintenance: Once a person has continued with their new behaviour for 6 months or more, they are in the final stage of change.  

Relapse: A relapse or a ‘lapse’ is a normal part of changing an unhealthy behaviour. A relapse is defined as going back to the problematic behaviour (or worse), whereas as a ‘lapse’ is like a little slip up. The important thing is to learn from any lapses or relapses by identifying the trigger, and then putting strategies in place for preventing another one from occurring in the future. 

As you pass through each identified stage of change, so too does your level of self-efficacy. In other words, once you progress to maintenance (especially if you have been following a detailed program) you will find it easier to identify and overcome any common barriers in the future. Therefore, when you relapse or lapse (which is very normal), you can re-implement your new learnt and healthful behaviours. The goal is to move towards maintenance, while increasing your levels of self-efficacy. 

It is important to note however, that ‘at-risk’ populations are often not prepared for the action stage and will not be served by traditional educational programs. Therefore, helping people set more realistic goals and assisting them in moving towards action with a trained professional is a very important step in this process. Professionals who have the right skills can guide you in changing your thinking and attitudes.

If you have issues with self-worth, or anxiety around changing your behaviour, or perhaps a belief that prevents you from acting, this is completely normal! Seeing a psychologist may be a crucial step for you in changing your problematic behaviour. Psychologists are well trained in dealing with ambivalence. It is very common for people to be ‘stuck’ in the contemplation stage. If this sounds like you, a psychologist can guide you in working through the pros and cons of changing your behaviour and collaborate with you to start preparing for change. 

Take Home Message

Changing life long behaviours and creating new healthy habits can be incredibly difficult. The first and most crucial step to the process is about identifying the behaviours in your life that are problematic. If you believe that you don’t have the ability to change, it is recommended that you seek professional help from a psychologist to guide you in commencing the process of change. Everybody can change a problematic behaviour; you may just have to change your attitude towards the behaviour first!


Simone Chartres is an endorsed Clinical Psychologist with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). She has over 10 years of clinical experience working with young people and adults with complex presentations in the public and private sector. Simone has extensive clinical experience in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders, mood disorders, substance use disorders and eating disorders.

Expert Q&A: Introducing Jemma McGeachie

1) Could you tell us a little about your career and areas of expertise/interest? 

I am a Women’s health and Musculoskeletal physiotherapist who has worked for nearly two decades helping people achieve their goals.

My passion is helping women through pregnancy and beyond and also the journey of back pain and how exercise rehabilitation can be the change.


2) What drew you to this line of work/research in the first place? 

I was fortunate to work with specialist physiotherapists early in my career both in Sydney and in London, who were truly inspirational.

After the birth of my 3 boys I was extremely passionate about helping women in this space, returning them to work pain free and helping them to reach their exercise goals.


3) How do you look after your own physical and mental wellbeing?

Habits and routine are so necessary for me. I love pilates which makes it easy to attend and I also enjoy running with my friends. My boys keep me active too!


4) Do you have a favourite post-workout cafe?

Somewhere in the sun with  good coffee and a good friend.


5) What is one thing you wish people knew about wellbeing? 

It can mean something different to everyone! And that’s okay!


6) What is one of the most ridiculous things you’ve read or seen about wellbeing that you know to be untrue?

High intensity workouts can damage your joints and weaken your pelvic floor. This is simply untrue!


7) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or websites on health or wellbeing that you’d recommend?

I love what Noom is doing with their app. Lots of great tips and tricks based on evidence based psychology on how to achieve health and fitness goals.


8) What is your top tip for living a healthy and happy life? 

Prioritise yourself first and really work out what makes you feel good. Reward yourself often and smile more. Your brain will believe you are happy if you do!


Research Review: Why Sleep is Critical for a Healthy Body Composition

In this article, our expert Dr Tony Boutagy – reviews The effect of acute sleep deprivation on skeletal muscle protein synthesis and the hormonal environment by Séverine Lamon et al. 2021, and breaks it down to give us the vital parts we need to know. 

1) What was the high-level summary of the research?

A single night of sleep deprivation can induce considerable effects on, muscle breakdown (catabolism) – by causing a significant reduction in both muscle growth by 18% and the growth (anabolic) hormone testosterone by 24%. Further, the researchers found that the muscle breakdown (catabolic) stress hormone cortisol increased by 21%. 

The findings of this study provide the support for long-term observations that show that a reduction in sleep has negative consequences on body composition.


2) What did the study try to measure?

Inadequate sleep duration has been demonstrated in several studies to negatively impact numerous aspects of health, especially metabolism and brain function. 

For example, short sleep impairs how well you can control your blood glucose and increases the risk of developing type II diabetes while also reducing cognitive function and mental performance. 

Research has also demonstrated  poor body composition – increased fat mass and decreased muscle mass – in those individuals who sleep less than 6 hours per night. 

Human muscle is in a constant state of breaking down and rebuilding. If rebuilding occurs to a greater magnitude than the rate of breakdown, then we gain muscle tissue over time. Periods of marked inactivity or bed rest cause breakdown to exceed the rebuilding process, and the loss of muscle mass follows. 

To measure the short-term flux (breakdown vs. rebuilding) of muscle protein balance, researchers can examine the synthesis of new muscle proteins in response to a variety of interventions, such as exercise modes, food types and in this instance, sleep deprivation. 

This study aimed to explore the mechanisms that can cause the negative change in body composition observed in those who experience short duration sleep by investigating the effect of sleep deprivation on muscle mass. 

In addition to measuring the synthesis of muscle proteins in response to sleep deprivation, the researchers also examined the levels of the growth hormone, testosterone and the muscle breakdown (catabolic) stress hormone, cortisol.


3) How was the study undertaken?

Thirteen young adults who were sleeping on average 7 hours per night were studied under two conditions: (1) a full, normal night of sleep and (2) complete sleep deprivation. The sleep environment, temperature and provided food were all carefully controlled. The next day after both sleep conditions, small biopsies of muscle were taken, and blood was drawn to examine markers of protein synthesis and hormones.


4) What did the study find? 

This study found that one night of complete sleep deprivation resulted in an 18% reduction in muscle protein synthesis and this was accompanied by a decline of 24% in the growth (anabolic) hormone testosterone and a 21% elevation in the break down (catabolic) stress hormone cortisol.


5) Is there any other research out there that supports these findings or contradicts it? 

This study provides the actual mechanism behind the well-known observations that short sleep duration results in poor quality body composition. Previous investigations have observed reductions in muscle mass and testosterone and increases in cortisol with sleep restriction, and this study found the same using a model of complete sleep deprivation.


6) How much weight should we give this research?

This study used complete sleep deprivation as the intervention. Care should be given when attempting to extrapolate these results directly to those who have slept less than the recommended 7.5 to 9 hours per night. However, the results support previous research that has demonstrated reductions in muscle mass and an increase in fat mass when sleeping less than 6 hours per night. 

The protocols and methods used in this study provide what is considered to be the ‘gold standard’ level of evidence for providing a link between lack of sleep and muscle turnover, along with the hormones involved in this regulation. As such, we should take the results of this study seriously with respect to the lack of sleep and muscle health.


7) What does this mean for your work/research/industry? 

Often viewed as unimportant and wasted time, sleep has been demonstrated to play an extremely important role in maintaining our brain, metabolic and cardiovascular health. Studies like this one show how important sleep is to the quality of our muscle mass. 


8) What’s the key takeaway for us to take from this research?

Far from being wasted time, sleep duration should be a priority for those who consider muscle mass, and health in general, important. But don’t fear if you go through periods of your life when you are sleep deprived, such as raising small children or working hard to meet project deadlines. Just understand that over the long term in order to maintain a healthy body composition as you age, you must prioritise your sleep.


9) Will you be doing anything differently because of this research? 

No! I already knew how important sleep is to every aspect of our health and do my best to maintain a routine of an 8-hour sleep opportunity and a regular sleep-wake cycle every day, or as best as I can with 3 young children!


Tony Boutagy holds a PhD in exercise science, where his primary interest is in body composition and human performance. Dr. Boutagy shares his time between hands-on coaching in Sydney and online education on topics which include health, exercise and lifestyle.