5 steps to take to become a morning person

emany mornings at 7 a.m., Jane Walsh rolls out of bed and onto her yoga mat. For the next half hour – before coffee or breakfast or feeding the cats – she bends down and stretches her body.

“It sets the tone for the rest of the day,” says Walsh, 58, who works in public relations in New York. She has maintained this schedule for as long as she can remember, even when she was in her 20s after a late night out. Without her morning routine“my mood isn’t as stable and I don’t feel as good in general,” she says—and when she falls asleep, she feels like she’s missing something.

Walsh is what researchers describe as a lark: an early riser who is more active in the morning, compared to a night owl who thrives after dark. Everyone has a chronotype, or circadian tendency – a natural tendency to sleep and wake up at a certain time. Our internal clock is about 30% to 40% dependent on genetic factors, says Philip German, a clinical psychologist who directs the Sleep, Neurobiology and Psychopathology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. However, it’s not a safe bet that “if you have parents who are night owls, you’re definitely going to be a night owl,” he says. Research shows that your environment, age and gender also affect your chronotype.

The most extreme larks wake up at 5:30 am and go to bed around 8:30 p.m., but even getting up at 7 a.m. qualifies you as an early riser, sleep experts say. And what if you want to become more of a morning person? People who are die-hard night owls or morning larks will usually have trouble adjusting their schedule and may need help from a sleep specialist. It’s a lot like trying to change how tall you are, says Jennifer Martin, president of the board of directors of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. But the good news is that most people don’t fall into either extreme, she says—and if we want (or need) to start waking up at 5 a.m., that’s an achievable goal.

The health benefits of becoming a morning person

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we all have different chronotypes. Our cave-sleeping ancestors needed some people to be alert in the evening and others in the morning, says Britney Blair, a clinical psychologist and faculty associate at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. This ensures that “the tribe is safe for the entire 24-hour period,” she says.

While we no longer need to be on the lookout for wild beasts that appear in the wee hours, there’s nothing wrong with being a night owl, says Blair. However, our society tends to reward morning people: “Somehow, if you get up early in the morning, you’re more industrious, and if you get up later, you’re lazy.” That’s not true, of course—someone might just be more productive at 2 a.m. than at 2 p.m. That kind of thinking “does a disservice to people who are genetically night owls, and they end up carrying that burden,” Blair says.

Still, being an injured person can have some health benefits. Research links early life with better mental health and a lower likelihood of schizophrenia and depression. Other research has found that morning people tend to be more proactive.

Also, waking up early is often the only opportunity for some people — like parents — to claim time and space for themselves, says Charissa Chamorro, a New York-based private clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders and sleep-related problems. She advises many of her clients to move their mornings earlier.

“I always encourage people to pick something they like that they don’t think they have time for in the day and take five minutes out of it,” she says. “It could be reading a novel or a magazine or a blog — anything that’s rewarding for them.” Meditating or even just taking five mindful breaths can also help start the day on a positive note, adds Chamorro.

If you’re determined to rise with the sun or just catch more of the morning, know that switching to a new schedule takes time and effort. Sleep experts suggest the following strategies:

Illustration by Brown Bird Design for TIME

1. Look for as much natural light as possible

The secret to becoming a morning person is exposure to bright light, Martin emphasizes. This is because the light oppresses melatonin, a hormone that plays an important role in the circadian rhythm. “The sun is the driver of our internal clock,” she says.

When you wake up, head outside for a brisk walk around the block or sit in the back while sipping a cup of coffee. Martin also recommends rethinking blackout curtains, which you might use to create a very dark sleeping environment—she chooses not to use them in her children’s rooms, who are 16 and 20 years old. “I want the light to come in and help them wake up,” she says. (If brightness bothers you at night, consider wearing an eye mask to take off when you start to wake up.)

However natural light is ideala little artificial light can also be helpful. Sunrise alarm clocks are shaped like the sun and mimic the natural morning light instead of waking you up with a jarring alarm. Although German notes the lack of research on these dawn simulators, “anecdotally, many of my patients have told me they find them very helpful for waking up in the morning.”

Illustration by Brown Bird Design for TIME

2. Go in gradually.

There are two ways to approach getting up early, says Martin. You could jump right into getting up at your desired time each day, knowing that you’ll feel tired during the transition, but you’ll naturally start falling asleep earlier within a few weeks.

But for some people — like those who have to drive long distances — the first few days of exhaustion from switching to a new schedule aren’t safe. In that case, Martin recommends a gradual transition to early bird life. “What I will suggest to people is to switch half an hour, wait a few days, switch another half hour, wait a few days and then switch another half hour,” she says. “It’s a little easier for people to tolerate.”

Illustration by Brown Bird Design for TIME

3. Be consistent – ​​even on weekends.

Becoming a morning person is a seven-day-a-week job. Decide what time you will wake up every day and stick to it without exception. “If someone says, ‘I want to be more of a morning person during the week, but I want to sleep in on the weekends,’ that’s not going to work,” German says.

Illustration by Brown Bird Design for TIME

4. Relax in the evening.

A consistent bedtime isn’t as important as sticking to the same wake-up time every day, German says, but it’s still important to make sure you’re enough sleep. Most people should aim for at least seven hours a night — so you’ll likely need to increase your bedtime going forward when you switch to a new schedule.

Start at least an hour before you hit the sack, reduce exposure to bright light, advises German. Research shows that exposure to artificial light late at night suppresses your body’s ability to generate melatonin, which can interfere with both your ability to fall asleep and the quality of your sleep.

If you want to make sure you fall asleep quickly, Blair suggests trying small amounts melatonin. A dose of 300 micrograms about three to four hours before bed will help you start feeling drowsy, she says.

Illustration by Brown Bird Design for TIME

5. Plan something to look forward to.

To entice you out of bed, Martin suggests treating yourself to something special to enjoy first. “Now is the time to go buy your favorite coffee or grab a pastry to munch on when your alarm goes off at 5am,” she says. “You’re not afraid if you think about it.”

She also likes to book yoga or other fitness classes at, say, 6am. This helps keep you accountable and provides an extra reason not to hit the snooze button over and over again. If you don’t like that, use the time to connect with friends in other time zones. Martin is based on the West Coast and her sister lives in the Mountain Time Zone. “I like to talk to her when I get up and she’s driving to work,” she says.

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