History of the Siesta

Fact-Checked

Siestas are known as a time when Spain shuts down to let everyone go home and nap in the middle of the day. This staple of Spanish life is famous worldwide, but you may be surprised to know that many other countries besides partake in this practice, and siestas aren’t just for sleeping.

What Is a Siesta?

A siesta is a midday nap that’s a popular daily, or near-daily, practice in many hot climates (1) around the world. Siestas are commonly associated with Spanish-speaking countries in the Mediterranean or Latin America, but they’re also popular in countries like Greece, Israel, and Nigeria (2).

What Does Siesta Mean?

The word siesta is a Spanish word that derives from the Latin phrase “sexta hora,” which means sixth hour (3), or noon. Noon occurs roughly six hours after dawn, making it the sixth hour of the daytime.

What Time Do You Take a Siesta?

Siestas take place in the afternoon, giving people a time to rest and take a break during the hottest part of the day. In Spain, most businesses and retailers shut down around 2 p.m and stay closed until 5 p.m (4). The one exception is bars, restaurants, and large department stores (5), which remain open to allow people to gather and eat during siestas, or run errands. People return to work around 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m., and stay until around 8 p.m..

How Common Is the Siesta?

Many people associate siestas with Spain, even though they’re a fairly common practice in hot climates around the world, particularly in countries located within 30 degrees of the equator. Between 60% to 80% of people practice siesta at least 4 times per week in Mexico, Ecuador, and Nigeria. People even practice siesta in the U.S., with 40% to 50% of Floridians taking a siesta at least once a week. In general, men are more likely to practice siesta than women.

How Did the Siesta Get Its Start?

The history of the siesta is more complex than you might expect. Romans may have originated the siesta, giving the word its Latin origins. Historically, the siesta began as a way to give people a break from the afternoon heat, since most people performed work outside. The siesta allowed these workers to go inside, eat and take a nap, and come back refreshed and able to work well into the evening.

After the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, it became common for people to work two jobs. Siestas gave people time to take a break before travelling to their next job.

The Evolution of the Siesta

The siesta seems increasingly less necessary in the modern age, since air conditioning keeps workplaces cool no matter how hot it gets outside. It also seems impractical, with longer daily commutes (6) making it difficult to return home for lunch and a nap.

Moreover, siestas are incompatible with a global economy. By leaving in the middle of the workday, and returning later, the typical Spanish workday is out of sync with other European countries. The long workday also leaves Spaniards with less time for sleep, impairing their productivity and overall health and wellbeing (7). The average Spaniard goes to bed later, and sleeps 40 minutes less than the average European.

As a result, the government has made moves to shorten the workday (8) to 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. This shortened workday would allow Spaniards to get home and go to sleep earlier, foregoing their need for a siesta. These laws are designed to improve the sleep and wellbeing of Spaniards, while also enabling Spanish businesses to better integrate with the rest of the European economy.

While there may be less official time set aside for siestas today, many people still partake in the tradition. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Spain. A heavy meal (9) increases sleepiness, which may make people more inclined to take a siesta, especially if they drank alcohol, which has a sedating effect (10). Those who siesta today may practice the traditional routine of a nice lunch and a nap, while others may use the time to eat without napping, or to go shopping.

Are Siestas Good for You?

Ultimately, it may depend on whether your siesta is a short power nap or a long slumber. A midday nap of 10 to 30 minutes (11) can be powerfully refreshing, boosting your alertness (12), learning ability, and cognitive performance for up to 3 hours (13) afterward.

Longer naps can also improve performance, but come with a few significant drawbacks. First, you experience sleep inertia, or drowsiness, upon waking up, which lowers your productivity. Longer naps also reduce your sleep drive, so it’s more difficult to fall asleep later that night. Early studies of siestas seemed to confirm these findings. For example, one study of heart attack survivors found that a daily siesta practice, as well as a longer siesta time, were both associated with a higher risk of heart attack. Another study found that taking siestas doubled your mortality risk.

However, a more recent study has found that, if you’re otherwise healthy, a regular siesta practice may actually reduce your risk (14) of death from coronary heart disease and heart attack by up to 37%. Another study found only a weak association (15) between siesta and mortality in men without chronic conditions and no association in women. These findings only hold for short siestas of 30 minutes or less. Longer siestas of over two hours are still associated with a higher risk of mortality, from heart disease or another cause.

Short siestas of 30 minutes or less may also help protect short sleepers from becoming obese (16). Short sleep (defined as sleeping less than the recommended seven hours per night) is associated with obesity. However, short sleepers who take a 30-minute siesta have a 33% lower risk of becoming obese than those who don’t take a siesta. But, as with the studies on siestas and early death, long siestas don’t share these positive results. Those who took siestas that lasted more than 30 minutes were twice as likely to become obese.

Siestas may be less popular than they used to be, due to air conditioning and the pressure of a global job market, but they still have their benefits, if the research is any indication. They may improve productivity, while lowering the risk of heart conditions and obesity. Just make sure to set your alarm for 30 minutes or less.

 

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