Treat it like jet lag
It’s time for that American tradition when we bemoan changing our clocks by falling back an hour because daylight saving time (DST) is over. Each time we change clocks, be it in the spring or fall, news stories and morning shows talk up the changes. Some of the coverage is about the history of the practice and whether daylight saving time was designed to help farmers or was created by Ben Franklin.
But there is also handwringing about the potential problems that can occur when we change our clocks by an hour. In fact, there is evidence that car accidents increase and that the disruption to sleep and circadian rhythms can affect heart health in the days after the time change.
Regardless, most Americans seem to like springing forward for spring and summer so that we can have long evenings and late sunsets. Maybe that’s why Congress jumped on board the absurdly named Sunshine Protection Act of 2021, which would make daylight savings time permanent. Under this plan, we would turn our clocks forward and never back again. The funny thing is that we tried this plan twice (as recently as the 1970s) and it failed; Americans hated it.
What makes the Act even odder is that a majority of folks don’t find the time changes disruptive, and most Americans like DST but still don’t want it year-round. That leaves us with a question: Can we have the time changes we want and still reduce the effects on our bodies? Yes. All we have to do is understand that we are creating something like jet lag and fix the problem based on that fact.
The real problem is that our current approach to DST doesn’t give us time to adjust. As anyone who travels too much knows, changing time zones upsets your circadian clock, but there are good ways to adjust for the time change. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, “It usually takes about a day to recover for each time zone crossed.” And the Sleep Foundation has several tips on fighting jet lag, including exercising, avoiding stress and having a light schedule on the first day in your new time-zone. So, you might think that everything is O.K. We all just need to relax and maybe go to the gym on Sunday. But that’s incorrect.
Think about that Sunday morning after a time change. The switch occurs on Sunday morning at 2 a.m. It’s like we all just flew a red-eye but don’t have a full day to adjust between time zones. Depending on who you are, you may stress about the change on Saturday before the change or on Sunday when you look at your watch and wonder where an hour appeared or disappeared.
Finding time to exercise when the work and school week are the next day is probably difficult and might create more stress. The hype about being out of sorts on Monday may eat at you with good reason. All of these points may make us think Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and the other lawmakers who sponsored the Sunshine Protection Act are correct when they claim that switching our clocks twice a year is “antiquated” and that we should change to permanent daylight saving time to give families more light at the end of the day. But that view misses some big points.
Time changes affect different parts of America in different ways. Where you live and whether you have kids means not everyone will have the same experience. Sunrises close to or after 9 a.m. means kids and parents going to school and work in the dark for several months, especially those living near the western edge of a time zone. Of course, we could ignore these facts and switch to year-round DST to run yet another experiment. But why do that when we already have evidence it’s a bad idea?
For example, we know that waking up in the dark to start our day also messes with our circadian clocks. There is even some evidence that waking up in the dark makes it more difficult to be alert, increases anxiety and may lead to seasonal affective disorder. Put simply, waking up in darkness for months at a time is probably a great way for millions of people be sleepy, cranky and distracted while racing to school or the office in winter.
Do we really need to test whether that will increase traffic accidents and decrease personal health for many days rather than just one or two after a time change? No. There is a simpler way forward.
We should give ourselves more time to adjust. Rather than changing our clocks at 2 a.m. on Sunday, we should change them at 2 a.m. on Saturday. Suddenly everyone has part of Saturday and all of Sunday to adjust. Stress should go down, because we have time to plan or time to adapt if we forgot about the time change. Having two days to squeeze in some exercise makes it more likely it will happen. Having two nights to get used to a new sleep pattern will be better than one. Rather than having to go to work and be on someone else’s schedule the day after a time change, we can take the Sleep Foundation’s advice and make Saturday and Sunday lightly scheduled days.
Will everyone be happy? No. But when a law makes everyone a little happy and a little unhappy, it’s probably a good law born of common sense and compromise. I could, however, be wrong. Perhaps I’ll sleep on it with my extra hour on Sunday Nov. 6.