The 30-minute (or less) brain workout you can do lying down
Your body may not be moving during a nap, but your brain is hard at work. To reap the most health benefits, you want to time your nap right. Here's how.
Crossword puzzles, jogging in the park, learning a new language. When you think of ways to keep your brain healthy, you probably think of active and challenging activities. But there’s another (dare we say easier) way to protect your brain from age-related decline: Just take a nap.
That’s right, midday siestas aren’t just for kiddos. Studies show that naps can provide a wide range of brain-boosting benefits for adults, too. Those include better memory, concentration and problem-solving skills.
Best of all: You can glean these benefits in less time than it takes to do a load of laundry.
“Strategically placed, a short 15- to 20-minute afternoon nap can help rejuvenate you, make you more productive and allow you to function better overall for the rest of the day,” says Kimberly Hutchison, MD. She’s a neurologist and an associate professor of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
Having a midday snooze can also give you an extra hit of energy to help you power through until bedtime.
“There comes a certain point in the day where the brain and body aren’t able to maintain the same pace without having a rest period,” says Dr. Hutchison. “By taking a nap, you’re allowing yourself to recharge your batteries.”
If you nap, you know that too little or too much time on the couch can leave you more tired than when you started. So here’s how to get the timing just right — and reap all of those mental and cognitive benefits.
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The health benefits of napping
Even though the body isn’t moving during slumber, it’s hard at work. Among other things, sleep helps strengthen the immune system, regulate hormones, and repair tissues and muscles.
Sleep also turns on certain parts of the brain that consolidate and store information for later use. That can help boost long-term memory and improve overall brain function. Getting enough shut-eye can also help keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes.
By breaking up the long period of wakefulness in the middle of the day, naps seem to play a significant role in getting the most out of sleep. In fact, a recent study in Switzerland found that nappers were less likely to have heart attacks and strokes. And another 2021 study of adults over 65 found that those who napped (for less than 30 minutes a day) were 53% less likely to have cognitive decline.
Other research published in the journal General Psychiatry looked at the impact that daytime naps had on tests of mental agility (quickness and sharpness) in those age 60 and up. The result: Those who took a regular nap after lunch scored significantly higher than their non-napping counterparts.
Related reading: The safest way to cure insomnia.
What is the best time of day to nap?
Naps are best taken somewhere between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. That’s when your circadian rhythm — your body’s natural clock — takes a natural energy dip. Driving this dip is the so-called sleep hormone, melatonin.
“During those 2 hours, there’s a small melatonin release, and that’s what makes you feel sleepy,” explains Michael Breus, PhD. He’s a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist in Manhattan Beach, California. He’s also the coauthor of Energize!
That isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, though. Your natural energy dip may be earlier (especially if you rise before the sun). Or it may be later if you don’t start your day until brunch. Breus suggests that the ideal nap is really 7 hours after you wake up in the morning.
“That’s the time that you’re most likely able to fall asleep in the afternoon,” he says.
You’ll also want to be mindful that your nap timing doesn’t interfere with your ability to fall asleep later, says Dr. Hutchison. “You want to build up enough of the biological drive to sleep that accumulates the longer we are awake,” she says.
How long should naps be to get the most benefits?
Ever lie down for a power nap and wake up super groggy instead? Or have trouble falling asleep at night because of it? Well, that likely means you napped for too long.
For the most health and energy benefits, you’ll want to stay within the half-hour mark. Naps between 10 and 30 minutes seem to work best. Any longer and you start entering deep sleep, which is harder to snap out of, says Breus.
To avoid any post-nap grogginess, Breus suggests making what he calls a “nap-a-latte”: Drink 6 ounces of hot or iced black coffee, without sugar or milk, right before you go down for a short 20- to 30-minute nap. Why? “The caffeine waits in the wings so that when you wake up, it’ll hit and you’ll feel even more refreshed,” he says.
Expert napping tips for non-nappers
Napping can feel indulgent and downright difficult for some. But just as with other self-care habits, such as mindfulness, taking the time to recharge is important in our fast-paced world.
So if you’re not a midday snoozer, you too can learn to become a daytime nap devotee. Here are some expert tips to get you started:
- Set an alarm for 30 minutes max.
- Choose a place other than your bedroom (your brain associates it with deep, overnight sleep).
- If you can’t fall asleep, simply close your eyes, breathe deeply and relax. You’ll still quiet your brain and reap some of the benefits.
- Download a power-nap app with built-in times and options for soothing sounds or music. One free option: Insight Timer.
Power naps shouldn’t be considered a replacement for nighttime sleep. The American Sleep Association suggests thinking of naps as a supplement to give you an extra lift if you’re tired during the day.
If you’re so zonked that you’re napping for 2 hours or more on a consistent basis, you might want to talk to your doctor. A health condition such as sleep apnea might be stopping you from getting the most restful sleep possible.
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Napping and heart health study: Heart (2019). “Association of napping with incident cardiovascular events in a prospective cohort study”
Short naps and cognitive decline study: BMC Geriatrics (2021). “Short daytime napping reduces the risk of cognitive decline in community-dwelling older adults: a 5-year longitudinal study”
Mental agility and napping study: General Psychiatry (2020). “Relationship between afternoon napping and cognitive function in the ageing Chinese population”
The ideal nap length: American Sleep Association