Sleep, Memory and Learning

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.



People can maximize their brain capacity to learn by getting enough sleep. But the amount could determine not just how well you live but how long you live. How just how much sleep do you need to learn and be healthy?


A new study by epidemiologist Jane Ferrie tracked over 7,700 British civil servants about their sleep habits over an 8 year period ((Ferrie, J. et. al (2008). A Prospective Study of Change in Sleep Duration: Associations with Mortality in the Whitehall II Cohort. Sleep, 30 (12), 1659-1666)). The study found a U-shaped association in sleep and subsequent all-cause mortality. Short sleepers (less than 6 hours) and long sleepers (nine hours or more) both had 110% increase risk of dying from heart disease.

The link between decreased hours of sleep and higher cardiovascular mortality risk seems to make some sense based on prior research. Short sleep duration is a risk factor for weight gain, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes, increased cortisol levels and abnormal growth hormone secretion (associated with hypertension and some cardiovascular diseases).

The link between death and long sleepers is mysterious. Long sleep is typically a sign of depression which is chacterized as an activated stress state although behaviorally people appear lethargic, fatigued and low energy.


A recent study by Howard Nusbaum at the University Chicago and colleagues suggests we consolidate learning when we are sleeping. It appears that sleep is pretty important following the goal of learning new facts and for performance on newly acquired skills.

Using a test involving video game learning with 207 college students, Nusbaum and colleagues showed that people who had “forgotten” how to perform a complicated task after 12 hours of training were able to be restored after a night of sleep. Their results showed that sleep definitely helps us retain knowledge you might forget duirng the day ((Nusbaum, H. et al. (2008). Learning and Memory, 15, 815-819)).

Sleep occurs in 90 minute cycles with the most important phase called rapid eye movement sleep (REM) coming nearly 60 minutes into this cycle. Current research suggests that without REM sleep, the brain discards what we learned the previous day preceding sleep.

Snooz to Learn More Techniques:

1. Right before sleep, mentally rehearse or review the key points you want to retain and learn ecen if it is physical actions or skills like playing the guitar, shooting hoops or giving motivating speech to others.

2. As soon as you wake up in the morning, review the main points again to reinforce the neural circuits that were “layed down” during REM sleep.

3. Get adequate sleep (enough sleep for you so that you don’t feel inappropriately sleepy the next day) before and after you have learned something of importance.

4. Practice sound sleep hygiene practices to ensure quality sleep at night (e.g., go to bed the same time each night–even on the weekends to avoid the typical “Sunday night insomnia”).

So, “sleep on this blog” and I guarantee you can share it with someone else tomorrow….Be well….

[tags]insomnia, sleep, fatigue, depression, sleep disorders, fatigue countermeasures, REM, NREM, circadian rhythms, stress, health, job burnout, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack[/tags]


Life Unbalanced

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.



Results of a new study from the University of Maryland confirm what working parents already know — the expanded work week is undermining family life. In a study of over 500 employees in a Fortune 500 company, researchers concluded that long hours at work increase work-family conflict and that this conflict is associated with increases stress and depression (regardless of how flexible an employee’s schedule was or how much help they had at home for child care).

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, some major career paradigm shifts continue to influence the value struggle between employers’ needs and employees’ wants. Job security has been replaced by employability security, organizational loyalty has been replaced by job/task loyalty, and linear career paths have been replaced by alternative career paths. It is no coincidence that when reviewing characteristics of the “Best Companies” in America, we find a shift to those that are indeed “family friendly.”

In a poll by Reston, Virginia based TrueCareers, more than 70% of workers do not think there is a healthy balance between work and their personal lives. More than 50%of the 1,626 respondents reported they are exploring new career opportunities because of the inability to manage both work and family stressors. Not only that, a survey in May 2009 found that 79% of all job holders said they had increased their search for new jobs since the recession began last year.

In a comparative survey by Atlanta-based staffing firm Randstad North America, in the year 2000, 54% rated family the most important priority compared to almost 70% in 2002.

For working professional women it is not unusual stop out of work (“off ramping”) to care for children, parents or other family demands. In fact, in a recent study by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce published in Harvard Business Review on differences in “off ramping” found that 44% of the women reported leaving the “fast lane” for “family time” compared with only 12% of men.

According to a Family and Work Institute study conducted in 2004, over 16% of employees bring work home at least once a week—up from 6% in 1977.

What makes these work/family issues more striking is that working hours in other countries are flat or even declining. For example, France recently enacted a 35-hour work week and mandatory vacations for all employees. According to the International Labor Organization, as of 2000, Americans are working more hours than the Japanese (1,966 hours per year compared to 1,889) and to every European country surveyed.

Taken together, these survey findings seem to suggest that indeed organizations are expecting more from all talent with less resources and security on the horizon.

What Can Be Done: Health and Productivity Management

A focus on Health and Productivity Management (HPM) can become a competitive advantage to organizations with an emphasis on reducing employee stress and focusing on optimizing wellness in the workforce. Successful lifestyle modification can be facilitated by coaches using structured engagements to assist employees to increase awareness, set behavioral goals and develop effective stress and health management coping skills.

One of the biggest challenges is attempting to link an individual employee’s health goals to an organization’s profitability and productivity goals. Despite the challenge, a growing body of evidence in the field of health and productivity management (HPM) suggests that investments in the overall health of an employee do contribute to the organization’s bottom line. For example, individuals on disability comprise about 10% of all employees but they account for over 50% of all employee health costs in most organizations.

Published studies have consistently reported positive return on investment for worksite wellness/health promotion programs for employees. For example, a recent comprehensive review of 56 worksite health promotion studies found that 28 showed an average reduction of 26% in health care costs and 25 measuring absenteeism showed an average of 27% reduction.

For one’s client, the HPM literature can help make a convincing case that productivity and health are not incompatible—they are supported by the same lifestyle behaviors. Increasingly, companies seem to be coming around to the idea that lifestyle modification programs and coaching can have an impact on morale, productivity, employee well-being and health costs. One approach companies are using today is to offer lifestyle or wellness coaching to their talent.

Lifestyle Modification Coaching

Consultation regarding lifestyle behaviors has seemed to be part of the domain of physicians, psychologists and other health professionals—not the arena for executive coaches. It can be argued that coaching for lifestyle modification fits well into the concerns of coaches attempting to increase effectiveness and performance of clients within organizations.

The increasing prevalence of work stress, job/family imbalance and chronic health problems related to lifestyle have a direct adverse affect on individuals and organizations. Helping employees initiate and maintain healthy behavior changes is of increasing importance for the prevention and management of these problems.

In two recent prospective studies of ours, employees in a large aerospace and public utility organization who exercised more regularly, practiced positive overall health habits, had higher scores on resilience/hardiness and utilized appropriate emotion based coping reported significantly less absenteeism due to physical illness, less reported job burnout and greater job satisfaction at the end of a one-year period.

Improving the total health of the workforce (physical and psychological) through formal programs as well as executive lifestyle coaching would appear to be important strategies for increasing productivity and competitive advantage.

It’s time to get my guide dog puppy Ajax out for his dailywalk to promote health and well-being before he goes back to work….Be well….
[tags]obesity, physical activity, work life balance, wellness, depression, sleep disorders, exercise, health and productivity management, lifestyle coaching, wellness coaching, stress management, stress, health, job burnout, envisia learning, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack[/tags]


Keeping Your Eye on the Size

Denise Nowack, RD


No doubt many of you launched the New Year with good nutrition intentions—eating more veggies, losing weight, or perhaps cutting down on the “junk food” in your diet. 

Making healthier choices is a great start!  But in a world of “super-sized” food, it’s easy to lose sight of a true portion size on anything we eat—healthy or not!  As the sizes of foods swell, so have our waistlines.  These simple portion control techniques are some of the easiest ways to trim calories–and your weight.

Read the Label

Let the food label be your portion-size guide.  Many of us tend to underestimate the amount of food we really eat.  Take this test…put your usual portion of pasta on your dinner plate and then measure it.  You might find that it’s two or three times more than the recommended serving on the food label. 

Stay away from “super” anything!

Words like “grande,” “super,” or “supreme” may be red flags for more food than you may need.  These value portions are no deal when it comes to fat and calories.

Good things come in little packages

If you’re easily tempted by a whole bag or box of snack foods buy single portion packages.  Pre-packaged servings of cheese, yogurt, tuna, frozen meals and other types of lunch kits take the guess work out of portion sizes.

Clear eye for the right size

Can’t be bothered by measuring your food?  Here are some everyday items that can help you easily size up servings.

  • A light bulb  –  1 serving (1/2 cup) of vegetables
  • A computer mouse  –  A medium potato
  • A bar of soap  –  3 ounces of meat  (the suggested portion for a meal)


  • An eyeglass case  –  3 ounces of fish
  • Two dice  –  2 teaspoons of butter or margarine
  • Two dominoes   –  1 ounce of cheese
  • A ping pong ball   –  2 tablespoons of peanut butter or salad dressing
  • A tennis ball  –  ½ cup or rice…or even ice cream
  • A baseball (not softball)  –  1 cup pasta
  • A hockey puck  —  Average bagel (though many are twice that size!)


[tags]denise nowack, stress, holiday stress, eating, nutrition, healthy recipes[/tags]


Exercise: The Brain Candy of Smart Leaders

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.


Ajax Sleeping

Do you ever wonder if leaders are losing their mind based on the stupid decisions or actions they tend to make? Maybe the phrase “losing it” really has some scientific backing. Indeed, all of us actually start to lose brain tissue as early as our third decade.

Maybe just working out will make you smarter.

An earlier 2003 study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that people who exercise lose brain tissue more slowly. Arthur Kramer, Ph.D. studying adults between the ages of 58 to 78 found that6 months of regular aerobic activity altered the middle frontal and superior parietal regions of the brain (responsible for concentration).

Kramer used MRI tests to show that those who exercised had denser brains than those who were inactive. It seems that leaders who are physically active lose brain tissue more slowly (Colcombe, S., Erickson, K., Raz, N., Webb, A., Cohen, N., McAuley, E. & Kramer, A. (2003). Aerobic fitness reduces brain tissue loss in aging humans. Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences. 58, 176-180).

A fairly recent recent study revealed that individuals who exercised for 6 months showed a significant increase in brain tissue responsible for higher level functioning like planning, goal setting and multitasking (Columbe, S., Erickson, K., Scalf, P., Kim, J., Prakash, R., McAuley, E., Ekavsky, S., Marquez, L, & Kramer, A. (2006). Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences. 61, 1166-1170).

In this study, one group just walked three days a week for 45 minutes and the other control group did non-aerobic stretching exercises. After six months, MRI tests confirmed that the exercise group had a 2% increase in the prefrontal and temporal cortices – areas that show considerable age-related deterioration – incurred the greatest gains from aerobic exercise.

Based on these studies showing increased plasticity of the brain of leaders, aerobic activities are preferred over pushing your weight around, side stepping that issue, leaning on your top performer or jumping to conclusions. You gotta love Nike’s slogan….Be well….

[tags]fitness, exercise, brain plasticity, brain tissue, cognition, executive decision making, ken nowack, kenneth nowack[/tags]


Are Night Owls Better Performers?

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.


We know that sleep problems create problems for both employees and organizations. For individuals even a few hours less sleep than you normally require will contribute to impairment in memory, psychomotor functioning, mood and susceptibility to getting a cold. For organizations, it affects the bottom line in terms of accidents, absenteeism, presenteeism (being there in body only) and health care costs.

Are you a “night owl” with your greatest alertness, ability to concentrate and performance late at night or a “lark” that has a preference for getting up early to accomplish as much as possible?

You should know that sleep-wake cycles are guided by two basic principles: They are linked to the light-dark cycle of the 24-day (circadian rhythms) and are aimed at helping us get an average number of hours of sleep each night (sleep homeostasis). Early and late risers have different patterns of hormone production at different times of the day and even body temperature (also a circadian rhythm which peaks in morning people early than night people corresponding to performance).

We also know that being a “night owl” or “lark” is genetically determined with early risers inheriting two long versions of a particular gene known as PER3. Could this innocuous DNA sequence be associated with “the early bird getting the worm” more frequently?

A survey by Gallup suggests that 55% of employees report they are at their personal best of performing in the morning, 15% in the afternoon, 20% in the evening (up until 11pm) and 5% very late at night. In their survey, 70% of employees who earn at least $75,000 reported they do their best work in the morning compared to 40% who make under $30,000 (Results were based on telephone interviews with 1,019 adults in October 2007).

However, other research is a bit less convincing. In one study, 356 people (29%) were defined as larks (to bed before 11pm and up before 8 am) and 318 (26%) were defined as owls (to bed at or after 11pm and up at or after 8 am). There was no indication that larks were richer than those with other sleeping patterns. On the contrary, owls had the largest mean income. There was also no evidence that larks were superior to those with other sleeping patterns with regard to their cognitive performance or their state of health ((Gale, C. & Martyn, C. (1998). Larks and owls and health, wealth and wisdom. British Medical Journal. December 19, 317, 1675-1677)).

Whether you are a “night owl” or “lark” new evidence is mounting that it is best to do your best to leverage your genetic strengths and try to avoid too much shifting of our sleep clock.

All of this research also assumes employees can choose to sleep in and get up as late as their body clocks let them each day. In reality, we all affected by our work schedule and family situations that can create havoc with our biological sleep rhythms. In some industries, having three shifts are essential to providing basic services such as health care, transportation, and hospitality to name just a few.

In an announcement published in the journal Lancet Oncology, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) will label shift work as a “probable cause” of cancer. Shiftwork directly affects the production of hormones such as melatonin, which in turn plays an important role in our immune system making us more vulnerable to cancers.

Raising a new guide dog puppy has really shifted my own sleep clock. I’m in need of another nap….Be well….

[tags]insomnia, sleep, fatigue, depression, sleep disorders, fatigue countermeasures, REM, NREM, circadian rhythms, stress, health, job burnout, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack[/tags]


Healthy Eating on a Budget

by Denise Nowack, RD87517833

Eating well doesn’t have to take a bite into your budget.  A little work up front can save you time and money down the road.  Here are some tips to keep a few pennies in your pocket with out compromising your health.

 Have a plan.

  • Look for healthy recipe ideas using budget-conscious ingredients.  (Search the internet using the ingredient as the key word.)
  • Take stock!  Create a master shopping list to keep your refrigerator and pantry filled with staples that are quick and easy to cook, and kind to your wallet.
  • Clip coupons…or go online to look for discounts on the products you use most.

 Shop smart

  • Check your list and stick to it!  Resist the urge to pick up “extra” items from end-of-aisle displays or at the checkout counter.
  • Buy in bulk and store in ready-to-use portions.  If storage space is limited consider splitting packages with a friend to take advantage of volume savings.
  • Look for specials. Stock up on staples when they go on sale.
  • Take advantage of fresh fruits and vegetables in season.  For other produce, frozen and canned products can be good choices.  Opt for low-salt products and avoid those prepared in sauces. 
  • Go generic.  Buying the store’s brand of canned, frozen or bagged foods can provide great savings without compromising nutritional value.

 Cook once, eat twice

  • When you have the energy to cook, double up on recipes! Freeze the extra in oven-ready containers, or use later in the week for lunches or quick dinners.
  • Stretch your meals. Leftovers from a roasted chicken at dinner can be reinvented the next night in a chicken pesto pasta or for lunch in a chicken salad.
  • Leftover vegetables can give canned soups, rice or pasta a nutritional boost.

Make the cut

While precleaned and precut produce can save time and energy in the kitchen they can be more expensive than their standard counterparts.  Go for whole fruits and vegetables and cut them up yourself. Chop and package them in common portion sizes for the recipes you use most, or slice and store them for an easy snack. 

Be a savvy snacker

Healthy snacking can be your best friend in managing fatigue.  However, single-serving snack foods can be costly.  Create your own individuals snack packs.  Make them in advance and package in individual snack bags so you can “grab & go.”

Be your own “takeout”

Restaurant and convenience foods can quickly chew into your budget.  Plan ahead and pack lunches in reusable and insulated containers for you and your family to take to work or school.  Here’s where your snack packs can come in handy.

Budget-friendly ingredients

  • Pastas
  • Quick-cooking grains (like quinoa, couscous, brown rice)
  • Canned beans (a great source of fiber and protein)
  • Soups (choose reduced-sodium varieties)
  • Canned & frozen fish
  • Canned & frozen varieties of fruits and vegetables
  • Nonfat powdered milk (use when milk is needed as an ingredient in cooking)

[tags]denise nowack, budget, eating, nutrition, grocery shopping, meals groceries, healthy eating[/tags]