By Alison Deshong
Updated March 22, 2021
Some adults view napping as a habit for babies and young children, but research shows that adults can also benefit from regular midday rest. If you’re running a sleep debt, a nap can counteract the negative effects of sleep deprivation (1). Even if you receive the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep every night, a short nap may boost your energy levels and ability to learn (2).
Despite the many positives of napping, only about half of adults (3) in the United States report napping regularly. Part of the reason may stem from the fact that napping doesn’t hold a renowned place in American culture like it does in others. We cover how different nations and cultures approach the practice of napping.
The Spanish Siesta
When it comes to napping cultures around the world, Spain stands out for its love of midday dozing. Napping holds such a special place in Spanish culture that they have a word dedicated to the practice: “siesta.”
What Is a Siesta?
A siesta is the practice of taking a midday nap (4) and is common in the Mediterranean. The word siesta is a Spanish term that comes from the Latin phrase “hora sexta,” or “the sixth hour” (5), indicating a midday rest six hours after awakening. Most closely associated with Spanish culture, the siesta takes place in the afternoon. The exact time of day varies depending on the locale, but the most common siesta time is between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Some towns in Spain take siestas very seriously. Businesses close their doors for several hours in the late afternoon for lunch and a siesta nap. Mothers even stop their children from playing and bring them inside to keep the streets quiet.
The siesta serves several important functions in Spanish society and other parts of southern Europe. In the warm Mediterranean climate, a siesta allows you to pause and rest during the hottest part of the day. The siesta also represents a crucial break from the work day in a culture that, despite its laid-back reputation, works more than most other Europeans (6).
Benefits of Siesta Culture
Midday napping in the form of a siesta is associated with a number of health benefits. Napping in general can improve alertness (7) and cognitive performance (8), and it may also improve long-term health. Mediterranean adults who regularly take a siesta have a lower risk of mortality from heart disease.
The Italian Riposo
Spain isn’t the only country that practices the midday nap. In modern Italy, Italians call their afternoon break a "riposo" (9). Many Italian businesses close in the early or late afternoon, allowing the owners to go home, have lunch, and take a quick nap during the hottest part of the day.
Like people in other countries, Italians benefit greatly from a regularly scheduled nap. One study found that midday napping was associated with a better diet, higher activity levels, and healthier aging in older Mediterranean adults (10), including Italians.
The Japanese Inemuri
With an intense culture surrounding work and study, people in Japan sleep less (11) each night than people in almost any other nation in the world. To fight fatigue, the Japanese have developed a napping practice called "inemuri," which roughly translates to “being present while asleep.”
Inemuri differs from the early-afternoon siesta and riposo. The purpose of inemuri is to take a few minutes to nap whenever and wherever possible. It's not uncommon to see people in Japan napping in the park, on the subway, in the library, or at their cubicle.
In the United States, napping is often associated with laziness or sloth, but the Japanese associate napping with hard work, making the practice of inemuri more socially acceptable. In Japan, engaging in inemuri means that you have worked yourself to the point of exhaustion or sacrificed nightly sleep for productivity.
Inemuri appears to provide people living in Japan with similar benefits enjoyed by those who take siestas or riposos. Studies have found that napping combined with moderate exercise improves nighttime sleep quality and mental health in the Japanese elderly (12). Napping also improves alertness and circadian rhythm regulation in Japanese shift workers (13).
The Scandinavian Winter Nap
Scandinavian countries Norway, Denmark, and Finland have learned to harness the power of their frigid winters for napping. In these countries, it's common for parents to leave their infants and young children outside for a daily nap, even in sub-zero temperatures.
Although the practice might seem strange to Americans, Nordic parents believe that sleeping outside in the winter helps young children acclimate to the harsh climate (14). By acclimating early, kids can spend ample time outdoors as they grow (15) with minimal risk. Parents also believe that the cold air promotes deeper sleep as children tend to take longer naps outdoors than indoors (16).
The Rise of the Power Nap
Napping hasn’t traditionally held an important place in American culture. But as more and more research highlights the health benefits of daytime naps, our collective views on napping may start to shift.
In the last two decades, the concept of the power nap has gained popularity among busy students, tech workers, and high-powered executives. A power nap refers to a short daytime nap of 30 minutes or less (17) intended to boost energy levels.
Power naps help improve cognitive performance and alertness while reducing feelings of fatigue and sleepiness (18). The shorter length of a power nap also allows you to avoid sleep inertia (19), the groggy feeling associated with longer naps. With the tech sector leading the way, several of the largest companies in the United States are now encouraging their employees to take power naps in the office.
We’re just starting to catch on to the power of napping here in the U.S. However, other countries have held midday napping in high regard for generations, and for good reason. A quick nap in the middle of the day is an easy way to give you the extra boost of energy that you need to tackle the rest of your to-do list.
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