by Aran Montare Savory
To nap or to exercise—a question that plagues so many of our busy days. On those lucky afternoons when we find ourselves with a free hour, we’re often left unsure how to spend it. This is particularly common with college students who are often sleep deprived and whose sleep schedules seldom align with their circadian rhythm. As a college student myself, I have often debated between the two activities, typically giving in to the temptations of my pillow.
However, it turns out you might actually be better off spending your time exercising instead of trying to catch up on sleep. Studies show that a daily jog for thirty minutes five times a week in the morning can improve sleep quality and decrease sleepiness throughout the day. A team of psychologists from the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Basel found that sleep quality, mood, concentration, and overall daytime wakefulness improved after a group of over fifty adolescents committed to the exercise regimen for three weeks. After monitoring each participants sleep patterns, researchers found that their delta wave sleep, the deepest stage of sleep in the cycle, increased as did the time it took for them to fall asleep. Other variables, such as mood and concentration, were reported by the participants themselves. (Kalak, Gerber, Marcus, Roumen, Kirov, Mikoteit, Thorsten, Yordanova, Juliana, Puhse, Uwe, Holsboer-Trachsler, Edith, Brand, & Serge 2012).
Another, larger scale correlational study involving nearly 500 adolescents who either exercised 18 or 5 hours a week showed that vigorous exercise can improve sleep patterns, concentration, and general daytime wakefulness. The control group was selected based on people who reported to have an average exercise routine and were pitted against the non-control group, comprised of athletes who consistently exercised at an elevated eighteen hours a week. The participants were asked to keep a sleep log for seven days. At the conclusion of the study, researchers found a significant correlation between exercise and healthy sleep patterns. (Brand, Gerber, Beck, Hatzinger, Puhse, & Holsboer-Trachsler, 2010.) These sorts of preventative measures can contribute to a healthier sleep schedule that can, in turn, reduce feelings of exhaustion and sleep deprivation that might impel you to take a nap.
But what about the mornings when you already feel exhausted, when prevention is too late? Perhaps the impulse to go back to bed isn’t such a bad idea after all. In a study conducted at the Naval Health Research Center , research showed that while exercise exacerbates the harmful effects of sleep deprivation, napping actually reduced them. (Lubin, Hord, Tracy, & Johnson, 1976). After a little less than four hours of sleep, those participants who had napped had significant reductions of the impairments, such as mood, ability to do basic math, auditory vigilance, and oral temperature, measured as a result of sleep loss (Lubin, et. al, 1976). In contrast, those participants who had exercised had increased impairments as a result of sleep loss (Lubin et. al, 1976).