Want to get stronger, improve your mood and sleep sounder? Then you need to start napping, says convert Jen Barton.
For those of us able to work from home, our bedrooms, flats and houses have opened up a load of time-effective opportunities. We can head for a mindful walk outside at lunchtime or use that hour commute to do a home workout or run around the local area. The coffee is always within arm-reach, the fridge is stocked up and the sofa is way more comfy than our old office desk situation.
Another advantage that you may not have explored yet, however, is napping. Forget the kind of hangover-induced disco nap you used to squeeze in at uni; tactical napping in the early afternoon can make you more productive, stronger and calmer. Don’t just take my word for it: companies such as Nike and Google have designated sleep areas, and nap pods are starting to pop up in major cities.
If you do napping right – which means not falling asleep for too long, or napping too late in the day – it can increase alertness, reduce stress, improve memory and encourage creativity (see Salvador Dalí’s ‘key drop’ napping style, which involved falling asleep with an object and rousing as soon as it dropped).
With more of us working from home yet again – and hibernation season in full swing – there’s no better time to try napping. I’ve been doing it every day for the last couple of weeks and I feel less irritable, more energised and find my sleep quality at night isn’t affected (if anything, it’s better). Napping has been helping my daily workouts too, giving me more stamina so I can tack on another 20-45 minutes of exercise each day.
What’s the point of napping?
Not everyone is a natural napper, but for those who can find a way to integrate napping into their daily or twice-weekly schedules, the benefits can be huge. There’s plenty of science to back this up, whether we’re looking to combat burnout, improve mental agility or significantly boost working memory. Napping a couple of times a week can have physical benefits too, potentially lowering the risk of having a cardiovascular event like a stroke.
“Since sleep plays an important role in storing memories, a nap can help you remember things learned earlier in the day as much as a full night’s sleep. Napping works to keep you from forgetting things like motor skills, sense perception, and verbal recall, too,” explains psychiatrist Dr Meeta Singh, who specialises in the applied science of sleep.
How long should you nap for, and is there a ‘right’ time to do it?
Napping isn’t a solution for everyone. Anyone struggling with insomnia or other sleep disorders should focus on sleeping well at night before thinking about getting some kip in the day.
Dr Kat Lederle, sleep scientist and head of sleep health at Somnia, tells Stylist there’s “no one-size-fits-all answer” when it comes to napping. So it’s worth experimenting with different nap lengths and times of day to see what works best.
The post-lunch, early afternoon period when we start to feel a slump in energy levels is a popular time to nap. Dr Lederle advises getting your nap in before 3pm so it doesn’t affect your ability to get to bed later that evening, and to aim for a nap that lasts anywhere from 20-30 minutes.
This nap length keeps us in our light sleep zone, where we’re still “somewhat aware of the outside world and can easily wake up. If you encounter deep sleep, it takes you some time to become aware of the outside world,” she says.
Capping your nap at 30 minutes will also help minimise the chances of it impinging on your nighttime sleep. Shorter naps also work: even resting for 10 minutes can give the body a chance to relax.
A longer 90-minute nap that takes you through a sleep cycle can be extremely beneficial for memory and motor skills (but you do risk impacting your evening sleep).
Naps and exercise – what are the benefits?
Exercise can benefit our sleep cycle, but the reverse is also true. Elite athletes often integrate pregame napping as part of their prep (see Megan Rapinoe).
Recent research is starting to hone in on the benefits of napping for physical performance and reduced fatigue, although various studies have found afternoon naps work best to improve the performance of those who haven’t slept adequately at night.
“There is a lot of data that shows that napping improves physical and cognitive performance in athletes. It also helps with perceived exertion and psychological states like mood and stress. They [naps] help in reducing perception of fatigue, muscle soreness and sleepiness,” says Dr Singh.
In addition to improved alertness and energy levels, since naps can benefit our working memory, you might find it’s easier to remember combinations in fitness class after a nap.
According to Dr Singh, if you want to schedule your naps around exercise, either aim for a short nap of 20-25 minutes at least an hour before a workout, or a longer nap of 60-90 minutes to aid recovery after working out.
What I learned from napping daily for two weeks
I’ve been napping for the last two weeks, and I’m better rested than I have been in a long time. I’ve flown to a different time zone during this period and managed to avoid jet lag for the first time ever. I’m positive the daily naps have something to do with it.
It took me a few days to get into the napping groove. It felt weird to climb into bed at 1pm, and I definitely got in my head about my own stigmas to do with napping (I know I’m not being lazy, but will people think I am?).
Even though I was exhausted, I couldn’t automatically fall asleep the first couple of days. Then I tried listening to white noise and guided meditations with a Morphée sleep aid, which I found really soothing.
A week in, and both body and mind felt better-rested, calmer and benefitted from higher energy in the afternoons. I started heading out on a 20 or 30-minute walk after my nap, as well as cardio and strength workouts most evenings.
Napping made me more disciplined about getting to bed on time, and it didn’t mess with my nighttime sleep (that might be because I never succeeded in napping longer than 30 minutes). Some days I napped twice, once before lunch, once after. Once you start sleeping in the day, you don’t want to stop.
I was someone who thought naps were something I never had time in the day for, but the truth is, I just wasn’t prioritising sleep (I never questioned my need to scroll social media for 20 minutes – or more – every afternoon).
As Dr Lederle says: “We all want a bit of ‘me’ time and that comes at the cost of sleep, but sleep is the thing that sustains you.”
Check out more wellbeing tips over on the Strong Women Training Club.