Mind and Body

How to power nap—and why you should

Young guy taking a rest in the hot sun - Outdoor

Young guy taking a rest in the hot sun - Outdoor

Spaniards take siestas; Germans enjoy ein Schläfchen; Japanese professionals like to power snooze. 

“Naps are a time-honored part of many thriving cultures,” said Sara Mednick, a psychologist and a sleep researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, California. She estimates that between 40 and 60 percent of the world’s adult population naps. And maybe you should, too.

Related: 6 Doctor-Recommended Sleep Aids

Nap Your Way to Better Health
Napping provides many of the restorative benefits that a full night’s sleep does, including the most obvious: feeling refreshed and alert.

In a recent study, Mednick compared the ability of nappers and non-nappers to learn a computer game.

The two groups, both of which averaged 7.5 hours of sleep a night, were taught a game, then were tested on their skills—once in the morning and again at 4:00 in the afternoon. The napping group snoozed at 1 p.m. before repeating the test. The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that the nappers’ mastery of the game was 50 percent greater than the non-nappers’.

“Napping clearly seems to improve learning,” Mednick said.

More: How to Solve 9 Sleep Problems

Post-snooze, you can expect to perform better on tasks requiring creative insight, complex motor or perceptual skills, and muscular precision.

“After a nap, you improve at everything from playing the piano to typing and proofreading,” Mednick said.

The extra sleep may also help reduce your risk of developing several serious illnesses.

“People who sleep less than seven hours a night show higher-than-normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol and of insulin,” Mednick said. High levels of these hormones have been associated with diabetes and heart disease. 

“More sleep,” she said, “even in the form of naps, helps keep those stress hormones in check.”

When to Nap
The optimal time to nap is between 1 and 2:30 in the afternoon, the same stretch when cravings for a candy bar or a latte often kick in. 

“This period is known as the post-lunch dip,” said James B. Maas, a professor of psychology at Cornell University and the author of Power Sleep ($14, amazon.com), “but it happens whether or not you’ve eaten.”

Napping earlier or later in the day is fine, too. Just try to schedule your nap so that you wake up at least three hours before your normal bedtime, so you don’t disrupt your nighttime routine.

More: 10 Tips for Becoming a Morning Person

The ideal nap length is 20 to 30 minutes. In that amount of time, you experience sleep stages 1 (sleep onset) and 2 (light sleep). During these lighter phases, you drift in and out of sleep, muscle activity slows but doesn’t stop, and brain waves are just starting to decelerate. You can awaken fairly quickly from stage 1 or 2 sleep.

If you let yourself nap longer than 30 minutes, you’re likely to fall into slow-wave sleep—stages 3 and 4—and throw off your normal nighttime sleep schedule. 

Learning to Nap
Just as you can learn to meditate or use deep-breathing techniques for relaxation, you can train yourself to nap. 

“Napping is just like any other skill—the more you practice, the better you get,” said William Anthony, executive director of the Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation and vice-president of the Napping Company, an advocacy organization that conducts workshops on the benefits of napping.

If you’re feeling wired or can’t stop your mind from racing, practice relaxation techniques. Try visualizing a peaceful place—your favorite beach, say, or a hammock—and concentrate on that place until you feel your mind wind down. Or focus on relaxing your muscles. Working your way from your toes to the top of your head, focus on making sure each body part is perfectly at ease.

If you think you don’t have enough time, consider that “a nap as short as 10 minutes can significantly improve alertness,” said Dr. Maurice M. Ohayon, director of the Sleep Epidemiology Research Center at Stanford University.

Click here for more napping tips from Real Simple.