I have exercised early in the morning for almost 40 years. I realized in my twenties that if I did not commit to an early morning run or gym session, there was a high probability that my exercising would not get done later in the day. I commuted to downtown Houston early to beat the commuter traffic. During lunch, exercising was hit-or-miss, dependent on meetings, customers, and the financial markets. For most of the year, it was too hot to run in Houston during or after lunch. I also needed to be home when my children returned from school. Getting up early before the family got out of bed was the only consistent time to exercise.
Once I finished exercising, I quickly showered and ate breakfast. I then either drove to the park-and-ride to catch a bus or drove my car downtown. When I rode the bus, I did some reading and then took a short nap. The combination of post-exercise fatigue and food digestion caused me to feel drowsy. After a 20-minute nap, I felt ready for the workday. On weekends when my kids were young, I would catch a nap during their naptime. I have a lovely picture of me lying on the couch with my toddler daughter, both of us napping.
After my children left home for university, I commuted to work with my wife. Morning naps were not possible then, except during the weekends. During my last London assignment, my wife and I walked together to the office, a two-mile journey each way. The walk was enjoyable, except that the morning stroll came after my morning run around Hyde Park. By the time I was at the office, I felt the urge to nap. I rushed to pour a cup of caffeinated tea to perk me up prior to attending meetings. If I attended afternoon meetings, the urge to nap came upon me again and I needed another caffeinated drink. Upon retirement, I was able to take nap breaks whenever the tiredness hit me. A 10–20-minute close-eyed session, whether I fell asleep or not, did the trick. However, I usually felt guilty about taking naps due to the belief that I was being lazy or unproductive. Calvinist roots still dwelt within me.
New research, published by the University College London and the University of the Republic in Uruguay in Sleep Health (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2023/jun/regular-napping-linked-larger-brain-volume) shows promising outcomes for nappers. Dr. Victoria Garfield stated: “Our findings suggest that, for some people, short daytime naps may be a part of the puzzle that could help preserve the health of the brain as we ger older.” What rejuvenates me is healthy! My laziness guilt started to wane.
How does napping benefit the brain? “The research team estimated that the average difference in brain volume between people programmed to be habitual nappers and those who were not was equivalent to 2.6 to 6.5 years of ageing.” Brain cells were analyzed between those that nap and those that didn’t. The rate of brain shrinkage during ageing was less for nappers than non-nappers. The benefit is lower risk of dementia and other brain diseases.
Before one takes this research too far, other cognitive benefits were not observed by the research team. There were no differences in the hippocampal volume, reaction time, and visual processing. In other words, napping won’t make you more intelligent. Your genes remain the same, so don’t expect your SAT scores to improve.
How much napping should be done? Research suggests 30 minutes or less provides the best short-term cognitive benefits. Napping earlier in the day is better since it is less likely to disrupt night-time sleep. I am happy to report that one-third of those 65 or older nap regularly, like me. Instead of feeling guilty or lazy, join the napping community and lower your health risks.
We live in a world where some worship work and pride themselves by reporting the number of daily hours worked, whether from home or at work. Lying down for 20 minutes of rest during the workday is considered lazy, possibly a cause for termination. Perhaps this research will stimulate employers to rethink a short rest during the workday. While it won’t help employees process data faster, it may allow employees to live healthier lives for longer periods. Perhaps employees will require less caffeinated drinks to stay awake.
I grew up in south Texas and learned during my childhood about the Spanish siesta. This is the mid-day rest period during the heat of the afternoon. Shops close and children are sent home from school. Life returns to normal after the siesta. This period of rest did not start because of scientific research. It was a cultural development within a hot climate. Maybe the Spanish siesta should be considered for the cooler climates? Something to consider when your energy wanes and you search for a stimulating drink.