How to Power Nap—and Why You Should

Think it’s decadent to sleep at midday? Think again. A power nap can make you smarter, saner, and healthier.

sofa-nap
Photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo

Spaniards take siestas; Germans enjoy ein Schläfchen; Japanese professionals like to power snooze. “Naps are a time-honored part of many thriving cultures,” says Sara Mednick, Ph.D., 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.



Sleep experts recommend that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep every night, but American adults average 6.8 hours during the week, according to the National Sleep Foundation. “We’ve gotten to the point where sleep is viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity,” says James B. Maas, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Cornell University and the author of Power Sleep ($14, amazon.com). Yet if more of us napped to make up for lost sleep, “we’d be more efficient and productive at work and at home,” Mednick says. A 20- or 30-minute nap can leave you refreshed, with the energy to cruise through the rest of the day. Studies have found that people who nap and get adequate sleep are less forgetful and have lower levels of stress hormones.

If you tend to power through the day on cola and coffee, read on. Even though napping is an inborn skill (babies do it with ease), many adults find it difficult. The following strategies will help napping become second nature to you—whether you’re at home, at the office, or on the road. Go ahead, take five.
 

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 7½ 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 says.

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 says. Naps can also improve your outlook. Nicole Osterman, a 34-year-old administrative assistant in New York City who naps frequently, says, “I get more accomplished and I’m in a better mood because I’ve rested.”

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 says. High levels of these hormones have been associated with diabetes and heart disease. “More sleep,” she says, “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,” Maas says, “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.

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. During these stages, considered restorative or deep sleep, brain waves are very slow, and there’s neither eye movement nor muscle activity. “Your brain will register this as good sleep,” says Gerard Lombardo, M.D., director of the New York Methodist Hospital Sleep Disorder Center and author of Sleep to Save Your Life ($15, amazon.com). “And you will have much less of a need to sleep at night.”
 

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,” says William Anthony, Ph.D., 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.

For most of us, going to sleep each night is automatic; napping is not. For those who have trouble napping, preparation is key. “The approach to the nap is as important as the nap itself,” Lombardo says. First, make sure you’re in a relaxing environment—turn down the lights, put in earplugs, turn off the ringer on your phone. Next, put yourself in the right frame of mind. “You have to feel you deserve that nap,” Lombardo says. Remind yourself that a nap is as restorative as meditation. The 20 minutes or so you spend in light sleep will bring your heart rate down, reduce stress, and calm your mind.

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’re concerned about oversleeping, set an alarm. “I set my cell-phone alarm for 20 minutes so I can fall asleep very quickly and not worry that I’ll sleep too long,” says Stephanie Sellars, 29, a singer and actress in New York City. After you become a regular napper, your body will adjust and you probably won’t need an alarm to wake up.

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

While Mednick was in graduate school, she napped nearly every day to get through frequent late nights. Her ritual was simple. Every afternoon at about 2 p.m., she’d grab a blanket from her desk drawer and lie down on a couch in a dark room near her lab. Within a few weeks, she was able to fall asleep in a couple of minutes and wake up exactly one hour later, without an alarm. She’s still a committed napper. “After a nap,” she says, “I feel like I have a second day.”