Healthy Mind Healthy Sleeping Habits

Exactly How To Nap Like the Longest-Living People in the World

Photo: Stocksy/Milles Studio
To plot a roadmap for longevity, you might look to the ways in which people in the Blue Zones—aka regions of the world where folks tend to live the longest, healthiest lives—tend to spend their waking hours, like by gardening, going on regular walks, or communing with loved ones. But given what science has demonstrated time and again about the importance of sleep for health, you’d be remiss not to consider how these folks are spending their sleeping hours, too, and specifically, the ways in which sleep and napping play into their daily routines for longevity.

According to Dan Buettner, the National Geographic journalist who first uncovered the longevity hotspots of the Blue Zones and who authored the forthcoming book The Blue Zones American Kitchen, afternoon napping is common across all Blue Zones. But perhaps the most routine Blue Zone nappers are the residents of Ikaria, Greece, whose sleep schedule uniquely accommodates for the Mediterranean climate, as well as local food and eating practices.

“People in Ikaria, Greece return home when the sun is at its strongest [in the middle of the day] and will have their largest meal of the day followed by a short nap.” —Dan Buettner, founder of Blue Zones

“Most people in Ikaria grow a lot of their own food, so they have to work outside, tending to a garden in the morning, and will typically wake up with the sun to do that,” says Buettner. “Then, they come home when the sun is at its strongest and will have their largest meal of the day for lunch. And after that, they’ll take a short nap to feel restored for the evening and often tend to stay up a bit later, too, doing activities when the heat of the sun has died down.”

The longevity benefits of napping among people in the Blue Zones

Though a nap is just one element among many daily rituals of these long-living Grecians, some research points explicitly to the benefits of napping for longevity (by way of its potential ability to mitigate heart disease).

A 2007 longitudinal study that followed more than 20,000 Greek people over a six-year period found that after controlling for other factors that affect cardiovascular health (like physical activity, diet, and age), those people who reported taking regular midday naps of about 30 minutes had a 37 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease. And though the researchers weren’t able to analyze causation, they suggested that this heart benefit might come from the stress-relieving effects of taking a nap.

Indeed, other research has shown that taking a nap can not only decrease cortisol levels (thereby mitigating feelings of stress) but may also increase positive mood, improve emotional control (making you less impulsive and more tolerant of frustration) and boost focus, alongside naturally helping reduce tiredness. And any of the above napping benefits could have downstream positive effects for your day-to-day functioning and, in turn, your longevity.

All of that said, a nap is also not a panacea nor a replacement for clocking sufficient quality sleep—that is, seven to eight hours per night—on a regular basis, which is key for long-term mental and physical health. And if you’re napping every day in order to make up for sleep deprivation, you’re going to be missing out on important deep stages of sleep, including REM sleep, that you can only get when you’re asleep for an extended period of time.

Not to mention, the benefits of napping may have an upper limit. A 2019 longitudinal study that followed nearly 3,500 Swiss people for five years found that those who reported napping one to two times weekly demonstrated a significantly lower risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease—but that benefit disappeared in people who napped six to seven times weekly. And a 2015 meta-analysis on studies of napping and mortality found that napping for more than 45 minutes a day may actually be associated with greater all-cause mortality, perhaps due to underlying issues causing certain people to nap too often, for too long.

Which is all to say, napping for maximum longevity is likely about napping in moderation (and not, in any way, as a stand-in for regular quality sleep).

How to nap like the longest-living people do, as part of a routine for longevity

Do it in the early afternoon

As noted above, most people in the Blue Zones who nap will do so in the early afternoon—when the sun is beating down most powerfully, shortly after having lunch—around 1 to 2 p.m. (This is also a physiologically ideal time to nap in order to get ahead of the mid-afternoon slump, which typically arrives around 3 p.m., when cortisol levels naturally dip.)

Ensuring that your nap happens during this period of time can also keep it from interfering with your sleep, whereas later naps can reduce your overall sleep drive too close to bedtime, making it tougher to doze off.

Keep it short

20 minutes is the sweet spot for a functional power nap. Any longer, and you risk dipping into the deeper stages of sleep, from which it’s harder to wake back up. In that case, when your alarm goes off, you’re bound to feel groggy, as your body readjusts to the fact that your long nap was not, in fact, a full night of sleep. For this reason, micro naps tend to be the most effective in providing all the aforementioned benefits without the slog of getting back up.

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