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Scientists Find A Possible Link Between Circadian Rhythms And Athletes' Performance

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you have ever traveled across time zones, you know jet lag is real and not just something that affects sleepy business travelers.

ANDREW MCHILL: So in the NBA, most games occur 7, 8 p.m. And so if you are, for example, the New York Knicks traveling cross-country to play the Portland Trailblazers and the game starts at 8, your game's really starting at 11 p.m. in your internal clock time. And so that game is ending - you know, that fourth quarter is happening at 2 a.m. New York Knick time as compared to 11 p.m. Trailblazer time.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Andrew McHill studies sleep and circadian rhythms at Oregon Health & Science University. He also describes himself as a huge basketball fan who'd always wanted to study how travel affects players' performance. Well, the pandemic gave him that opportunity.

KELLY: Yeah. See, the NBA suspended play back in March. The league returned in July at Disney World in Florida in a protective COVID-free bubble, which meant McHill could examine stats from the same teams on the road earlier in the season or staying put at Disney World.

CHANG: And what he saw inside the bubble surprised him.

MCHILL: Everyone's effort was much better. So rebounding was better. Shooting was better. And so defense actually looked pretty bad because everyone was just playing so much better on the offensive side of the ball.

CHANG: Almost like everyone had the home team advantage.

KELLY: McHill says the stats also revealed that earlier in the season, players' shooting performance faltered when they traveled across time zones. And a misaligned circadian clock could be one reason why. McHill says our internal clock slowly raise our awareness and alertness through the day to counteract our growing sleepiness.

MCHILL: And so it's actually promoting your highest levels of alertness about two hours before you would typically go to bed, and then it drops off pretty quick after that. And so if you are moving time zones, your clock still thinks that you're in the old time zone. And so it's going to keep going at its natural rhythm. And so you have a misalignment of what you're doing while you're awake with what your internal body clock is telling you it should be doing.

KELLY: The work appears in the journal Scientific Reports.

CHANG: McHill says circadian rhythms probably aren't the only reason for the home team advantage, but he says smarter travel schedules might help.

MCHILL: If you could maybe travel sooner rather than later on that long road trip to get to that new location, especially if you're crossing time zones, that could be beneficial to help synchronize your clock.

CHANG: And although he feels lucky to have been given this unique, pandemic-driven research opportunity, McHill's hoping there will not be another. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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