Is 'Sleep Coaching' the New Wellness Frontier?

We put Equinox's new program to the test for five weeks.
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Photo: Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Photo: Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When I was first presented with the opportunity to try out "sleep coaching" — a new service being offered at gym chain Equinox — I was enthusiastically on board. I had visions of being hooked up to machines in some covert lab underneath the luxe fitness establishment's pilates studio; spending my first session running tests, maybe even napping while someone in a lab coat took detailed notes. But my experience wasn't what I'd expected, not by a long shot.

Though generally less exciting and definitely less sexy than feel-good superstars like crystal-based skin care, CBD goods and Instagrammable vitamins, the sleep-health industry has had a significant hand in the overall growth of the wellness space, which is now valued at a serious $4.2 trillion (!), having grown 12.8 percent in just the last two years, according to a report from the Global Wellness Institute. From bedding and white noise machines to medication and the study of how insufficient sleep affects both your physical and mental health, the sleep category is bursting with potential. And that's before you even consider all of the research out there confirming that insufficient sleep affects everything from our mood and energy levels to suppressed immune function and hormonal balance.

Knowing this, in conjunction with researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Equinox revealed findings linking behavioral "sleep coaching to exercise performance. The clinical study — the first of its kind — found that sleep coaching, which relies on improving people's sleep quality by getting them to subtly change their lifestyle habits, affects not only physical fitness outcomes, but overall wellbeing.

"We believe optimal health comes from a balance of movement, nutrition and regeneration; sleep has always been part of the conversation for us when it comes to regeneration." says Matt Delaney, National Manager of Innovation and Tier X Coach at Equinox. "Unfortunately, we as a society have been conditioned to de-prioritize our recovery, so working with UCLA to create a validated coaching method allows us to bring more awareness to the topic and a structured program to create lasting change."

In tandem with the release of the studies, Equinox rolled out its sleep coaching sessions at 22 club locations across the country as part of its Tier X Personal Training offering. The program runs for 12 weeks, and members at participating locations can focus on regenerating for a steep $495, which is owed in addition to the $200+ monthly fees for the base Equinox membership needed to be eligible in the first place. [Editor's note: Equinox provided the writer with complimentary sleep coaching sessions for the purposes of this story.]

When you consider that the global market for sleep aids and technologies reached $66.3 billion in 2016 — a number expected to reach $84.9 billion in 2021, according to a 2016 report by BBC Research — the price makes more sense in a general context. In a personal context, the prospect of trying this program at no cost to me was too good to pass up; I needed to know if it was actually worth it.

For five weeks, in an expedited run of the program, I met one-on-one with Amanda Clark — a New York-based Tier X Coach at Equinox, and my mentor for the program — in an empty, no-frills conference room at the gym. To be fully-versed in all things sleep, Clark attended a workshop on sleep led by Dr. Jennifer Martin, who serves on the board of directors for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), is board certified in behavioral sleep medicine by the American Board of Sleep Medicine (ABSM), and is the associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, which worked with Equinox on the initial study. (Safe to say, she's extremely qualified.) Martin created an additional web-based curriculum for the program, which Clark says covered "the science of sleep, lifestyle habits that affect sleep and recommended interventions."

It sounds intimidatingly heavy on the science, but the sessions were extremely casual; by the end of my first, Clark felt like any old friend (er, therapist?) I could complain to about the daily stresses that keep my up at night. Each week, we'd review my sleep diary, a provided one-sheet where I was to log all of the important stuff from the last seven days. Sleep times, any middle of the night issues, when and how long I may have exercised for — it all went in the diary. I'd also rate my sleep quality on an average scale from zero to 10. Clark would look over my log before our session was set to begin, prepared and ready to ask questions like, "Did anything in particular work for you this week? What can we work on for next week?"

Most sessions were spent working toward small, subtle goals that turned out to be pretty impactful. Things like closing my laptop before dinner and leaving it closed, working out earlier in the day so that my body wouldn't be energized close to bedtime, not sleeping with my phone were obvious, if not easy, tips to implement. Most notably, Clark coached me through creating boundaries with my boss to not email me after work hours, or at the very least, to not expect me to answer. (It's now been months since I've completed the program, and it remains a non-negotiable for me to this day.)

Before the end of each session, we'd also review an educational presentation. In this portion, our chat about my week and progress would be backed with real fact that put everything in perspective. Everything from the circadian clock — the 24-hour rhythm in our body responsible for telling our brain when to sleep, our gut when to optimally digest our food, our heart to pump more blood or slow down — to how stress, jet lag and routine factor into the way we sleep.

When I asked Clark if there's an ideal end goal for clients to reach at the end of the program, she noted that she's a firm believer it's always client-specific. "For some, just being informed is enough for them to easily implement new habits," she says. "For others who come into the program already well-informed, the coaching component is more important. Either way, there are no 'ideal end-program results' for me to identify, as success is for the client to measure, not for me as a coach to dictate. Did they achieve the goal they set out in the beginning of the program? This is success. Did they fail to meet their goal but learn valuable information about themselves in the process? This can also be marked as success."

Having gone into this program relatively skeptical — need I remind you of the total $695 needed to participate? — I was comforted by Clark's transparency and honesty throughout my experience, acknowledging that sleep improvement doesn't really have a clear-cut endgame. "Work and life stresses will always be present," she says. "My hope is that I can arm clients with skills and information that they can utilize when needed."

Would I ever personally pay for the full program? I don't think so. But I am happy with the information and accountability I walked away from it with. Should you (and your wallet) be in the same position, I've outlined my three biggest takeaways from the Equinox sleep coaching program below, with insight from actual paying members — that you can implement for free.

Set a literal bedtime, and stick to it.

As adults, free from the strict schedules of childhood, we rely on — and subsequently ignore — our bodies to tell us when to go to sleep. Clark recommended finding a sweet spot when I would generally start to feel tired, and make that my time to sleep. (For me, that ended up being between 10pm and 10:30pm.) "I have also established a bedtime routine, which includes wind-down time with no computer work or emails, no physical activity or eating, better hydration, and reading or meditation," shared a fellow program participant who wished to remain anonymous. It became clear that when you know exactly when you'll be going to sleep, you'll naturally fall into a routine in anticipation. This process eased my mind at night, and made things like packing lunches and getting dressed in the morning a lot easier as a result.

Cut phone use an hour before bed.

Electronics in bed are notoriously not great (blue light!), but is perhaps my greatest downfall, and was one of the more challenging aspects of this program for me to work through. "Light exposure — particularly the type of light that is emitted from electronic devices and televisions — before bed sends the signal to your biological clock that it’s time to stay awake, making it a challenge to fall asleep," says Clark. Over the weeks, I began to leave my phone on my dresser on the opposite side of the room, and treating my bedroom much more like the haven that it"s intended to be. I tried to remind myself that even if I didn't fall asleep right away, there's so much more benefit to letting my mind relax than there is to dropping my phone on my face looking at another Fashion Nova ad.

Find an accountability partner.

Realistically, a lot of what was discussed throughout this program I already knew. But the real game-changer — and to me what made the experience so beneficial — was having someone to speak to about my roadblocks and challenges, and actually keep my accountable. I found the logging helpful for the same reason. It may be easy to ignore how complicit we are in our own exhaustion from day to day, but having physical record that the reason you kept dozing off at work was because you were on your Instagram explore page for two hours before bed is pretty damning. Find a friend that needs more quality sleep too (statistically, this shouldn’t be hard), and keep each other accountable. At the end of the day, we know the things we're doing wrong when it comes to sleep, and when it’s written out for everyone to see, it's a lot harder to ignore. If you can feel better for free, why continue to fight it? 

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