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Friday, October 25, 2013

The Ultimate Workout Dilemma Solved (Sort of)

1 hour....nap, or workout?
My client was 20 minutes late and I wasn’t happy. I have a strict 15-minute no-show rule, and this was his fourth time violating that policy. Since he was my day’s last client, I began packing my bag when finally he rushed into my office, breathless and apologizing.
“I lay down to rest for a few minutes, and…” he began, though he didn’t need to finish the sentence. Trying my best not to sound like a prudish schoolmarm and reprimand him, I asked about his sleep patterns, fully aware how he’d answer.

“Lousy,” he replied. “Maybe five hours, followed by a big-ass pot of coffee to get me going. Then I crash about 3 p.m.” (Rule of thumb: don’t schedule your trainer at the exact time you know you’re going to crash.)
Then he dropped the question: “If I’m feeling sluggish, is it better to take a short nap or push through my workout?”
My answer was more complicated than he imagined.
The Science of Sleep
In past blogs, I’ve discussed how crucial sleep can be for optimal performance, fat loss, and overall health. One study showed even one night of crappy sleep can contribute to insulin resistance, leading to obesity and diabetes. 
Naps are a different ballgame. Unlike sleep, they aren’t mandatory. Some people take them regularly, while other people never dream (sorry, pun intended) about taking a mid-afternoon snooze. Depending on duration and other circumstances, naps can become beneficial or problematic.
A surprising amount of science supports short naps. Among those studies: 
·       One study found taking about a 30-minute or less nap increased wakefulness and improved cognitive ability and performance
·       Another study that explored the ideal duration for a nap concluded 10 minutes worked best.
·       This study also concluded a “10-minute nap resulted in significantly improved alertness and cognitive performance relative to a no-nap control.”
·       A study at NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%

Beginning to see a pattern here? Every study showed shorter naps provided optimal benefits. Anything longer than, say, 45 minutes could cut into nighttime sleep and also indicate you’re not getting enough high-quality sleep at night.
The question becomes more complicated when you factor in exercise.
Exercise or Nap: The Perennial Dilemma
Back to my client’s question: should he reschedule his workout and nap instead? Or should he tough it out, fight out his lethargy, and get a killer workout?
In my over 20 years’ experience as a trainer, I’ve heard this dilemma repeatedly. I also see this debated on fitness forums all the time.
My answer is that it depends. One study concluded exercise could produce similar physiological effects to a short nap.   Other experts, like Dr. Michael J. Breus, author of Beauty Sleep, call naps “exercise for the brain,” and designates them as equally worthy to a hard workout. 
Well, maybe. As a kinesiologist, I tend to lean the other way: grab a coffee if you must, but get your butt off the couch and in gear!
I get it. When you’re feeling lazy and sluggish, all bets are a nap will win. But consider this: in the bigger picture – meaning, when you look back at the end of your long day – would a nap or workout ultimately prove more beneficial? I’m willing to bet you’ll, um, rest easier choosing the workout.
Put another way: you could knock out a pretty hardcore burst training session in 20 minutes, about the same amount of time you nap. Will that killer workout or a nap better benefit you? I’m putting my money on the workout.
You also need to stand back and figure out what else is going on in your life. If you’re a little groggy and need a quick pick-me-up, I would say grab a java and hit the weights.
On the other hand, if you’re in a zombie-like state running on five hours’ sleep and countless venti dark roasts, you’re going to stumble miserably through your workout. You’re going to half-ass it and you’ll hate me for pushing you. In that case, you’re probably better hitting the pillow than bench press.
Uncovering Deeper Issues 
Naps can benefit you or they can cover up deeper problems. If you’re debating whether to hit the sack or weights, consider these questions:
   Does your napping cut into your nightly sleep patterns?
   Does a nap leave you refreshed or groggy and dosing on caffeine to wake up?
   Does your morning java jolt leave you crashing mid-afternoon?
   Is a gargantuan, carb-heavy lunch giving you a mid-afternoon crash?
   Are you more productive after a nap or does work become more burdensome?
   Does a short nap help you subsequently work out better and more efficiently?
   Are you addressing underlying problems that could be making you tired, such as thyroid issues, damaged metabolism, and adrenal fatigue?
   Are your naps spontaneous or pre-planned? The Sleep Foundation differentiates between planned, habitual, and emergency napping. Know thyself.

Become Your Own Guinea Pig
Maybe you want to dip your foot in the napping pool to figure out whether they work for you. Set aside 30 minutes in the afternoon, set your alarm so you don’t oversleep, and proceed however you intend to nap. Maybe you put your head on your desk; maybe you have the luxury of stretching out on the couch.
Whatever you do, don’t use your nap as a pretext for not working out. Make a deal with yourself: you can work out; you can work out and nap; but you can’t just nap.
You’ll need about a week to decide whether naps benefit you. If you find you’re sleeping less soundly at night, you’ll want to forego them. Ditto if the hour after you awake means groggily struggling to become cognizant.
If, on the other hand, 20 minutes of shut-eye makes you more productive and a better performer in the gym, by all means stick with it.

By the way, I worked with my client to create a consistent sleep schedule, which eventually eliminated his napping requirements. Except that now he’s going to need to find a new excuse for being late.
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Fitness expert and strength coach Jini Cicero, CSCS, teaches intermediate level exercisers how to blast through plateaus to create incredible transformations. Are you ready to take your fitness to a whole new level?  Find out now!  Take Jini's "Are you Ready?" Quiz at © 2011 Jinifit, Inc.

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