To kick off Better Sleep Month, which runs May 1-31, we teamed up with SleepScore Labs, our partner in sleep data and science expertise, to look at 18 of the biggest US cities to see who's sleeping the best, who’s sleeping the worst, who's staying up late, who’s waking up early, and who’s getting the most exercise.
Get ready, Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., because we’re looking at y’all!
America’s Big Cities Are Short on Sleep
When we analyzed the sleep data on some of America’s biggest cities, what we found surprised us.
Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults get at least seven hours per night, not one of these cities even came close. In fact, the residents of our best-sleeping cities average only 6 hours and 3 minutes per night.
Who's Getting the Most Sleep in America?
At the top of the list are Denver and Boston, edging ahead of Washington, D.C. and Chicago who are tied for second place.
Denver consistently appears on lists of the healthiest American cities, thanks to residents’ exercise habits, lifestyle choices, and other factors, so it’s not entirely surprising that the Mile High City tops our list for sleep, too.
Of the four best-sleeping cities, Denver clocked the most exercise time, with just over 32 minutes of exercise per day.
People living in the two best-sleeping cities on our list sleep 20 minutes longer than the worst-sleeping city.
And while 20 minutes may not seem like much, a person who gets an extra 20 minutes a night will be enjoying over two hours of additional sleep each week, which can lead to better health in the short and long term.
Which US Cities Are Getting the Least Sleep?
Of the 18 cities we investigated, none achieved adequate nightly sleep.
Twelve American cities are clocking fewer than six hours of sleep a night, and four notched under 5 hours and 50 minutes, a glaringly small amount of sleep.
“Residents of cities like Phoenix, Dallas, San Jose, and Houston, which are all averaging less than 5 hours and 50 minutes of sleep, may benefit from improved sleep hygiene,” suggests Elie Gottlieb, Ph.D., applied sleep scientist at SleepScore Labs.
The city on our list with the shortest average sleep time is Phoenix, which averages less than 5 hours and 45 minutes of sleep per night.
Phoenix also ranked lowest for sleep efficiency, meaning that for the 7 hours and 28 minutes Phoenix residents spend in bed nightly, they are only asleep for an average of 76% of that time (5 hours and 42 minutes).
This is below the 85% efficiency that the National Sleep Foundation regards as an indicator of good sleep quality.
Possible Reasons Phoenix Gets Poor Sleep
Phoenix’s poor sleep quality is notable for many reasons.
Of the 18 cities, Phoenix has the oldest average population of SleepScore users.
Phoenix also suffers from poor air quality, coming in near the top of the American Lung Association’s 2020 State of the Air annual report ranking US cities air quality based on particle pollution and ozone pollution. Phoenix not only ranked 5th in the country for ozone pollution, it also ranked 8th for year-round particle pollution and 13th in short-term particle pollution.
The Phoenix air quality, in combination with the sweltering desert temperatures, can make it difficult to exercise regularly. Exercise has been demonstrated to help with sleep quality, particularly when exercise is done outside during the morning hours.
According to a 2017 study published in the journal PLoS One — which was the first study using objective 24-hour accelerometer and daytime GPS data to assess the effects of outdoor activity, time of day, and their interactions on sleep health: “Those with sleep problems might consider getting their outdoor time and light exposure during the morning as opposed to afternoon hours, which is consistent with recommendations for bright light therapy.”
Of the cities we profiled, Phoenix also logged the fewest average minutes of exercise per day, at just over 24 minutes, which is three minutes less than the next most sleep-deprived city, Dallas (at just over 27 minutes of exercise).
According to Gottlieb, a positive association between sleep and exercise is supported by several studies. For example, there is a 2015 paper showing a reciprocal effect for sleep and exercise. Moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity has been shown to aid sleep, whereas sleep loss may impair both physical performance and recovery.
Who’s Staying Up the Latest?
New York City is famously hailed as “the city that never sleeps,” but perhaps the better description is “the city that goes to bed way too late.”
According to SleepScore's analysis, the Big Apple stays up the latest of all the cities profiled, clocking an average bedtime of 11:55 p.m.
In fact, 73% of SleepScore poll respondents reported that they always use electronics before going to bed, a possible disruptor to falling and staying asleep.
If you’re a late-night scroller, consider setting a cut off time to put your phone away and wind down. Investing in blue-light-blocking glasses or filters for your devices may also help reduce the risk of feeling too alert when bedtime rolls around.
Which American City Wakes Up Earliest?
Even though the people of Denver are averaging the most sleep, they’re getting up earliest with a wake-up time of 6:48 a.m.
New Yorkers averaged the latest wake-up time, at 7:28 a.m., 39 minutes later than the morning birds in Denver.
“We're seeing that cities that go to bed later, on average, do seem to be compensating for more sleep time by getting up later in the morning,“ says Luke Gahan, lead data scientist at SleepScore Labs and Sleep Advisory Board Member at Mattress Firm. “While we would hope to see people getting more sleep overall, it's good to see that the night owls are giving themselves a little extra time in bed in the morning."
Does Exercise Improve Sleep?
The relationship between physical activity and higher quality sleep is well-researched, and our findings reinforce the notion. Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week. This can be weight training, brisk walking, or leisurely laps in the pool.
People who get more daily exercise fall asleep more quickly and get improved sleep quality, according to Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep. A 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that “engaging in resistance exercise at any time of the day may improve quality of sleep as compared with no resistance exercise.” What’s more, a 2019 study led by Penn State of 417 American teenagers also found that “exercise may help teens sleep longer and more efficiently.”
Denver shows up as a front-runner in fitness activity time, according to SleepScore data. Its residents average nearly 33 minutes of exercise a day, and it also ranks in first place for getting the most sleep.
SleepScore’s data found that the two poorest-ranking cities for sleep, Phoenix and Dallas, both also reported the fewest and second-fewest minutes of exercise, respectively.
And this data is supported by additional national data. Personal finance website WalletHub looked at the 100 largest US cities across 36 key metrics ranging from the average monthly fitness club fee to bike score to the share of physically inactive adults. WalletHub’s 2021 list of “Best and Worst Cities for an Active Lifestyle” named Denver as the eighth-best city for an active lifestyle in the US. In comparison, Phoenix ranked number 44 and Dallas ranked number 36 on WalletHub’s 2021 list.
According to 2019 data from ClassPass, Denverites were the most likely to book an exercise class at 7:30 a.m. when compared to the rest of the country.
Keeping your workouts to morning or mid-day can help your body relax in the hours leading up to bedtime, and if you’re able to work out in the sunshine outdoors, this can also help regulate your body’s circadian rhythms.
“Morning exercise is the best thing you can do for your body at night,” says neurologist and Sleep.com advisor Dr. Chris Winter, author of “The Sleep Solution.” If evening activity is more your style, try to leave a four-hour window between the end of your workout and bedtime.
However, as Winter points out, if you’re setting an alarm and shortening your sleep to less-than-ideal nightly averages just to get your workout, it may not be worth it!
“I personally believe sleep’s more important than exercise to overall health,” Winter explains, recommending that people who are low on sleep build time for exercise into their typical activities rather than compromise on sleep. “I would stay in bed for that extra morning sleep time, and then try to walk back and forth on your lunch break to fit a bit more exercise into your day. Or, when you go to pick up your kid from soccer practice, instead of checking email in the car, walk around the car and answer messages while you walk.”
Do City Environments, Like Climate and Air Quality, Impact Sleep?
Several cities included in SleepScore Labs’ list of poor sleepers are also some of Americas most polluted — namely Phoenix, San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, which appear on the 2019 American Lung Association’s report of top 15 of most-polluted cities for small particle pollution. Denver, the city which SleepScore users reported most sleep, was not on the list of the top 25 most-polluted cities.
Further research and analyses are needed to unravel this potential relationship. However, experts have several theories about how city environments, climate, and air quality can affect sleep quality.
“Seasonal variations and Phoenix’s blistering hot temperatures may, at least in part, contribute to short sleep duration and poor sleep efficiency in that city,” Gottlieb theorizes. “During the summer months, Phoenix residents may limit their daytime sun exposure for fear of overheating or sunburn. Excessive ambient heat coupled with insufficient daylight exposure has previously been shown to have a detrimental effect on sleep-wake patterns.”
Broad-spectrum daylight exposure is important for circadian rhythm entrainment (or “synching”), and excessive bright light before bed may delay circadian rhythms and contribute to sleep fragmentation. Bright lights could account for delayed sleep time in New York City.
Another possible explanation Gottlieb mentions is poor air quality, though he also acknowledges that this is still an area of developing research. In a 2021 systematic review summarizing 15 epidemiological studies, researchers found that ambient air pollutants may be a trigger for poor sleep quality in both children and adults.
As important as sleep is, don’t take this data as a sign to move out of your city. “Additional empirical work is still needed to understand the underlying mechanisms driving poor sleep in these cities," says Gottlieb.
Is 6 Hours of Sleep Enough?
“No. Not at all,” says Winter.
According to Winter, there’s no way to look at this and say that even the best cities are getting enough sleep at six hours, when experts recommend seven to nine hours a night.
Of course, not every person needs eight hours of sleep per night — some people are happy and healthy at six hours, and others at 10.
Winter points out that in a city like Seattle, which averages six hours per night, the residents' actual per-person hours each night will vary. While there are some people who only need six hours of sleep a night, the average person needs seven to nine hours of sleep a night, meaning that many sleepers in these cities are notching more like four to five hours, to bring down the average from experts' recommendations.
"We're seeing that the vast majority of SleepScore users aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep on a nightly basis,” says Gahan. “There might an element of self-selection bias in the data, which means that poorer sleepers are more likely to use an app like SleepScore, but even so, it doesn’t paint a positive picture of America's sleep health.”
Health Risks Connected to Sleep Deprivation
“The short-term effects of getting too little sleep for an individual’s needs can include nightmares, slower job performance, irritability, and craving sweets,” says Dr. Monya De, an internal medicine specialist. “Long term, a sleep-deprived person is at greater risk of numerous medical conditions including obesity, heart disease, and dying too early from any cause.”
A 2021 study published in the Journal Nature which followed 10,308 50-year-olds and also relied upon data from the Whitehall II study spanning 30 years found that people who reported sleeping and average of six hours per night or less were 30% more likely to be diagnosed with an increased risk of late-onset dementia than people who averaged at least seven hours of sleep per night.
As De points out, “Everyone should treat their brains like expensive cars that need to be maintained, and that includes sleep to prevent dementia.”
“Any amount of extra sleep that an individual is getting compounded over the years can help when it comes to dementia, heart disease, blood pressure, and cholesterol,” says Winter.
What Can I Do to Get More Sleep?
The good news is that the choices and decisions we make in our daily routines and our living environment can potentially help us to get more sleep.
“Go to bed at the first sign of fatigue, even if it means you'll wake up weirdly early,” suggests De. “Be aggressive about making your bedroom dark and cool. Eat dinner as early as possible and just drink water only for several hours after eating dinner to have better sleep quality.”
“One easy thing is that we can make the sleep environment better: better mattress and pillows, darker room, cooler environment,” Winter adds.
Sometimes, it’s also a mental battle.
“Revenge bedtime procrastination — being able to watch something on TV because it’s your one hour of downtime a week — that should change,” says Winter. “If I can get you to avoid watching that latest TV episode, we can get you a better amount of sleep.”
“Decide what is going to leave your life so that you can prioritize getting eight hours,” says De. “Maybe it’s scrolling on your phone for two hours, maybe it’s 'Bridgerton.’”
How Can I Improve My Sleep in Better Sleep Month and Beyond?
Good sleep hygiene is key to laying the right foundation to ongoing quality sleep, and many of the best ways to achieve better sleep hygiene — powering down your mobile devices ahead of bedtime, for example — can be easy changes to implement right away.
Whether you are live in our list of 18 cities or not, there's no time like Better Sleep Month to take meaningful steps to improve those Zzz’s.
Here are a few ways to start on your journey to better sleep month:
- Consistency counts. Going to bed at the same time every night is a great place to start improving your sleep habits, as our bodies love a good consistent pattern. This will help you keep the same wake-up time each morning too, so you’ll rise feeling rested and bright-eyed. To help you achieve this habit, try setting an alarm not only in the morning but also at night to remind you when it’s time to start getting ready for bed.
- Get outdoors in the morning light. Go for a walk outdoors in the morning, even if it’s only for 15-20 minutes. This can help set your Circadian Rhythm for success.
- Cut the stimulants. For many people, a major step in sleep improvement is identifying sources of caffeine and then reducing caffeine consumption, particularly later in the day. The stimulating effects of caffeine last for many hours, so it’s recommended that you cut the caffeine after 2 p.m. each day.
- Chill out your sleep space. Your bedroom should be the ultimate place for sleep, and this includes maintaining the ideal temperature. The recommended bedroom temperature for sleep is quite cool, at 65 degrees F.
- Keep your sanctuary in check. Though it’s not realistic for many people to separate out a sleep space, given space constraints and cohabitation with roommates or family, if it is possible to differentiate your work and sleep spaces, experts recommend that we treat our sleeping spaces as just that — rooms where you sleep! Using your bedroom for working, eating, or watching TV is considered poor sleep hygiene, because doing those types of activities while in bed can train our brains to associate the bed as a place of wakefulness.
Or maybe you’re ready to commit to eight hours of quality sleep per night! If so, sign up for Sleep.com’s Eight Days to Eight Hours program, created with Winter, to help you achieve a better night of sleep.
Happy Better Sleep Month!
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