Benefits to being a floor sleeper
Before beds were the norm for regular people, back when they were expensive and used exclusively by royalty and the wealthy, elevating the simple mattress was a matter of avoiding drafts or creepy crawlies. Platforms were simple and the mattress itself was made from straw or plant matter. There were good reasons then for sleeping elevated off the floor, and they might still exist where you live today (cold climates, or hot ones where scorpions and other venomous critters might be an issue).
However, in those olden times, we weren’t as automated, and we got a lot more movement in the execution of our daily tasks than we do now, with all the conveniences of the modern world.
In today’s world, we could live for years without ever lowering our bodies beyond the level of a bed, sofa or chair. Bending our hips and knees beyond 90 degrees happens only in a gym or movement studio for an hour or two a week, if we’re lucky. The convenience of our modern culture means we rarely have to move in ranges of motion that our bodies are not only capable of, but require, in order to keep our joints healthy and lubricated and our muscles strong enough to lift us up from a squat or the ground.
Not only beds, but objects such as toilets, kitchen counters, cars, infant carriers, chairs, stairs, to name a few, keep us from moving in the ways we would have, had we not had these inventions in our lives.
As I’ve mentioned, humans’ first sleeping mattress would have been grass and leaves, but now we are coddled on a foot of springs, foam, cotton or wool. So not only are we elevated, we are sleeping on a surface where pressure is dispersed as much as possible.
I think it’s this reason more than any other that keep people from wanting to sleep on the floor. There is a shame to it as well — the bed is still an expensive piece of furniture and sleeping on the ground is seen as a step down in status. Going shoe-less, sleeping on the ground, squatting to go the bathroom — we are in a strange place in the wellness/fitness world to suggest that habits previously associated with poverty and homelessness is something that first world people would do well to adopt.
It’s not lost on me that it’s through this entitlement that I’m able to make this choice, I have a choice, and will lose little comfort. That said, I’m 63 years old, I am a ground sleeper and have been for about 8 years.
I first started floor sleeping as an experiment. Could I do it? Would I like it? Would it hurt? I decided that I’d try it for a week to give my body a chance to adapt. I was not injury free by any means, I had the typical aches and pains of anyone my age, but I was a Pilates instructor and used to moving up and down from the floor. I decided to go for a thin cotton Japanese futon on a grass tatami mat, more for the aesthetics than any other reason. In other countries, floor sleeping is not seen as that unusual, and Japan still has tourism around traditional hotels offering floor eating and sleeping. There is an importer in Toronto who brings beautiful mats and futons over from Japan, so I set myself up in no time and started sleeping on the floor.
At first, I woke up several times a night from the pressure on my hip. I’m a side sleeper and the pressure was intense! I would flip over and eventually fall back asleep, only to wake up a short time later from the pressure on the other hip. Flip, hip, flip and repeat. I was not prepared for how much I would have to change my position, as before on my soft-as-a-cloud mattress I typically woke up in the same position I went to sleep in.
For years I had a “bad” shoulder that made sleeping uncomfortable, it was the reason I kept replacing my mattress with softer, cushier, more expensive ones. But it wasn’t my shoulder or my “bad” back that was the problem, it was my hips, and there was nothing wrong with them!
We don’t think of the floor as exercise equipment, but when we subject our body to the pressure and stimulus of this unyielding surface for hours at a time, our body might experience difficulties dealing with it. Just like a pull up bar is a piece of equipment, so is a floor. And most of us have bodies that are not ready for a pull up or a bout of floor time!
However, loads are not only good for us, they are necessary. Types of loads can include compression (or pressure) such as the floor provides for your tissues. And like any stimulus to your tissues — too little has consequences (as in sleeping on my cushy mattress), too much has consequences (this is where bed sores come from), but the right amount of compression loads can strengthen tissues such as bone and give our muscle tissue a pressure massage. The key is to find the right amount by gradually decreasing your dependence on soft surfaces. I didn’t do that, and although I didn’t suffer more than a few nights of broken sleep, it could be a bigger problem for those whose bodies aren’t in floor-ready shape.
In my case, the hip pressure became less of a problem over time. The floor still induces pressure on my hips, I still wake up and have to flip, but I barely wake up, and go right back to sleep after turning. Moving more during the night means you aren’t creating pressure on one body part for a long period of time, decreasing circulation to those tissues. Moving back and forth during the night (once you can sleep through it) is better for your body than creating a comfortable sleeping arrangement where you don’t move at all.
Now when I lie on the floor (sometimes during the day on my yoga mat), my bones and muscle welcome the pressure, it’s actually comforting. I will often nap on my mat on an even harder surface (wooden floor) than my futon on the tatami for a shorter period of time, and wake feeling great.
The benefits of floor sleeping are many. But you don’t have to sleep right on the floor to get them. I have a low platform bed in the guest room that is about 6 or 8” inches off the floor. When you sleep in a high bed, you get out of it by swinging your legs over the side and then landing on your feet. The feet take the weight of your entire body with no preparation. People who suffer from plantar fasciitis often find the pain is worse in the morning. When you sleep lower or on the floor, you need to press yourself up from the ground, stretching your feet, legs and spine in the process. Your feet get moved before you stand on them. Your arms and core get moved. Getting up from the ground is a whole-body experience. Getting up (and down) is a strength-to-weight ratio exercise — your muscles need to be strong enough to lower your mass with control, and to lift it back up against gravity. When there is a large discrepancy between your mass and your muscle strength, this becomes more and more difficult, but the built-in necessity of getting up and down multiple times a night will help close the gap and maintain this relationship.
I do more than sleep on the floor. I also sit on the floor during the day, for computer work on a low table, and to relax. Multiple times a day and a few times each night, I move my hips, knees, and ankles to these end ranges of motion. I use my feet in bigger ways, my arms and core in ways that means they get a high percentage of movement that would otherwise be missing from their overall movement profile.
I know floor sleeping will not fit into everyone’s life, but if you are interested in trying it, I would transition by first making sure my joints were ready for that range of motion, maybe by taking one of my Dynamic Ageing courses, and then finding a mattress option that is slightly less cushy than the one you use currently. You could also put your current mattress on the floor, or use a mattress topper. If your joints and strength does not allow a floor option, try a lower bed, or a lower platform than the one you use now.
Optionally, leave the bed as it is and try moving to the floor more often during the day!
There are still spots open in April's online Dynamic Ageing Course. Click here for more info.