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Give it a Rest: Tips for Health-Promoting Naps

Give it a Rest: Tips for Health-Promoting Naps

How napping can help us restore and recharge our health.

Taking care of our health requires us to devote time, attention and dedication to our comprehensive needs. Packed schedules, and the urgency to fulfill countless obligations, often put these needs at the bottom of our to-do lists. As a result, we find ourselves running relentlessly like a hamster on a wheel. Feeling tired most of the time has become our new normal.

Naps provide us with vital respite, renewal and healing for our bodies, minds and spirits.

Many cultures around the world have historically embraced one simple yet highly effective tool for recharging and restoring daily health: a nap. Unfortunately, in modern western culture, napping is usually dismissed as an activity reserved for the very young, the very old or the very lazy. But as we continue to learn more about the critical importance of rest for overall health, attitudes are changing. Investing even a small amount of time out of a busy day to rest can provide big dividends for both our heart health and overall health.

Naps Improve Our Overall Health
Statistics show that most Americans never consider taking a nap, but many of us are also chronically sleep-deprived. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has estimated that one third of American adults average less than six hours of sleep per night. A Boston College analysis reported in Time magazine listed US students as the most sleep deprived out of over 50 nations.

In our fast-paced culture we are prone to think of rest as a waste of time. However, when we feel fatigued, motivation, concentration, creativity and productivity all suffer. When we’re tired, we’re more susceptible to feeling moody, impatient and irritable. We also tend to overeat or undereat, experience muscle tension and are more prone to headaches.

Nap Are Beneficial to Heart Health
In a 2007 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers from the University of Athens Medical School found that habitual siesta takers showed 37% less coronary mortality compared to non-nappers, as a result of reduced cardiovascular stress. In another 2011 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania concluded that daytime sleep offers cardiovascular benefit. The study focused on the effects of a daytime nap on cardiovascular recovery following a mental stress test. Test subjects who had napped for at least 45 minutes had significantly lower blood pressure readings after psychological stress than those who had not.

Napping at Work
It turns out that a little sleep on the job is good for business. Many employers are getting wise to the connection between rest, productivity and happiness on the job. Ben and Jerry’s, the Vermont-based ice cream company, was one of the first to establish a workplace napping policy more than a decade ago. Now many other forward thinking companies like Google and Zappos have installed napping pods in their offices. Arianna Huffington has designated several rooms for napping in the New York City offices of the Huffington Post.

In her book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom and WonderHuffington speaks from her own personal experience about rest as an ingredient for success. After collapsing from exhaustion at her desk one night (and breaking her cheekbone in the process), she made health and wellness in the workplace a top priority. She wrote, “Increasingly, companies are realizing that their employees’ health is one of the most important predictors of the company’s health, as well.”

Napping helps us to lower stress levels, regain concentration and feel re-invigorated. When we are able to nab some rest we feel calmer and less cranky. Our mental grogginess lifts and we feel better able to cope with whatever comes our way. Taking a brief break from the grind with a short nap can soothe, refresh and recharge us whether we are at work, at home or even when we are on vacation.

Tips For Effective Napping:

Keep it to 20 Minutes
Most sleep experts recommend keeping naps around 20 minutes in length. A 20-minute nap has been shown to increase alertness, improve concentration, elevate mood and sharpen motor skills. In an article in the New York Times Magazine, Damien Leger, a doctor who runs the sleep-research center at the Hotel-Dieu Hospital in Paris, suggests that a nap longer than 20 minutes may take you into the cycle of sleep known as slow-wave sleep. This could leave you with what Leger refers to as “sleep drunkenness,” instead of a feeling of rejuvenation. Dr. Leger asserts that napping is a basic right, not a petty luxury, and that there is nothing shameful about taking a nap. In fact, Leger hopes that in the future a short nap will replace the afternoon post-lunch coffee break. He says, “Napping is much more powerful than caffeine and there are no negative side effects.”

Focus on Your Breath and Relaxing Your Muscles
In preparation for your nap, calm your body by breathing slowly and deeply. Gently focus your attention on relaxing your muscles from head to toe.

Set up a Comfortable Nap Environment
To reduce distracting noise in your environment, wear comfortable earplugs or turn on white noise from a fan or sound conditioner. Darken your room by closing the curtains, dimming or turning off lights, or by wearing an eye mask. Set an alarm for yourself, or if you are in a hotel, request a wake-up call from the front desk. Janet Kennedy, clinical psychologist and founder of NYC Sleep Doctor cautions that it will be hard to relax into falling asleep if you are worried about not waking up at the right time. Setting an alarm takes the pressure off.

Give Yourself Permission to Nap
Whatever you do, never guilt yourself out of a nap. Give yourself permission to put your unfinished to-do list out of your head for the short time that you will be resting. Sink deeply into the gentle ebb and flow of your rhythmic breathing. Remind yourself that you are worthy of rest, comfort and renewal. If you feel that you are getting enough rest but still feel tired, don’t hesitate to schedule a check-up with your physician. Your fatigue could be a side effect of medications or a possible sign of a treatable condition like sleep apnea or anemia.

Appreciate the Value of Rest
Rest is a biological need and offers us an indispensable process for restoring our vigor, bounce and sparkle. Our sense of happiness and well-being is rarely derived solely from an impressive resume and long hours logged at work. More often we find the meaning and purpose of life in the small, precious moments of an ordinary day. When we feel rested we stand a better chance of not missing the unexpected kindnesses, the silly things that make us laugh out loud and the tender connections with others that fill our hearts with joy.

A friend of mine who was recovering from burnout sent me a message after she started her new, less demanding job. It included a picture of a small framed quote that she now has on her bedside table that she reads each night before going to sleep. It says, “Let her rest. For when she wakes refreshed, she will move mountains.”

This article was originally published in Ornish Living.

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

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