Should You Nap, Walk or Caffeinate to Beat That Post-Lunch Tiredness?

Senior Airman Ryan Baker, a vehicle operator with the 70th Medium Truck Detachment, takes a rest in Iraq on Oct. 28, 2011. (Photo by Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen/United States Air Forces Central)

It is no secret that many suffer a physical and mental decline after lunch, so much so that some feel the need for a nap. There are many factors that can contribute to this midday drowsiness, including poor sleep, bad choices or too much food at lunch, lack of sunlight, lack of exercise or not being well-hydrated.

Some have figured out ways to keep going through the afternoon; some are still struggling. The common options available if you want to rid yourself of this midday plague are to take a 15- to 20-minute nap, walk for 15-20 minutes, do a short workout or add a dose of caffeine.

To Nap or Not to Nap

Most people feel a need to take a midday nap, but only a small percentage of us can even consider napping as an option, largely due to our work situation or environment. According to the American Psychological Association, napping is not a feasible option for more than two-thirds of the population, so you must power through or find other ways to make yourself feel less tired.

However, if you have a place to rest during a lunch break, a short nap of 15-20 minutes has been proven to have many short-term benefits, including:

Though research has shown that 30- to 60-minute naps can boost creativity and memory, longer naps can leave you sluggish and may interfere with your night's sleep schedule if you take them too late in the afternoon.

Between 12:30-2 p.m. is the best time to find a few minutes to nap. Matthew Walker, author of "Why We Sleep," recommends using napping to better understand your natural circadian rhythm and sleep cycles. However, Walker is not a fan of napping to replace a poor night's sleep or using weekends to catch up on lost sleep.

Consider Something Else Besides Napping

If lying down on the job is not an option during a lunch break, take a 15- to 20-minute walk before or after (your choice) you eat your lunch. This is not the only situation that dictates not to nap. Those who should avoid napping are those who have issues with sleeping soundly at night as they can have negative results. In fact, Walker emphasizes that napping does not help with sleep debt (catching up from a bad night's sleep), and in fact, the need to nap can be a sign of something more serious, such as sleep apnea, anemia, thyroid distance, diabetes or depression.

Try Combinations of Options

If the afternoon is dragging and you feel like you need a boost, consider having a dose of caffeine before taking a nap or a walk. This combination can quickly help you get back on track, and author Daniel Pink gave it the nickname the "Nappuccino" in his book, "When: The Scientific Secrets Of Perfect Timing."

I find that a 15- to 20-minute walk right after a post-lunch unsweetened tea gives a solid boost to my afternoon, especially if I need to get creative for writing projects or stay alert when driving for the rest of the day.

The Foods We Eat and Outdoor Sun Exposure

The foods and snacks you choose to eat during the day can play a major role in whether you feel like you need a nap. Processed foods, high sugar food and drink choices, or too much food (even protein) can trigger your body to go into a natural "rest and digest" mode. Make sure you receive morning sunlight or take vitamin D supplements to help your body better regulate your natural sleep cycles.

Strategic Napping and Power Naps (from Matthew Walker)

Both of these terms have been used by the military and NASA in research that shows the benefits of napping. In fact, the Army FM 7-22 Holistic Health and Fitness Field Manual says that "short and infrequent" bouts of sleep "build physical lethality and mental toughness" and "restore wakefulness and promote performance."

NASA published a research study that showed scheduled rests for pilots during long flights were helpful with reducing attention lapses or "micro-sleeps." The Federal Aviation Administration has deemed the "power nap" acceptable, and it's been helping pilots since 1990.

Think of these options as tools in your backpack as you try to stay more alert and become more productive in the afternoon. There is no reason why the frequent use of all three (nap, walk or workout, caffeine), along with solid food choices at lunch, cannot be a regular part of your afternoon ritual. However, the most important fix is the end-of-the-day restorative sleep with creating a pre-sleeping habit that produces the right environment to sleep well all night long.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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