What naps may come

Sleep: Two entrepreneurs in New York open a business for people in need of 40 winks.

December 12, 2004|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - The days are short and cold. The lists of year-end and holiday chores are endless. Rich food and befogging beverages abound.

Sounds like a good time for a nap.

The holiday stretch that begins with the feasting of Thanksgiving and ends with the bleary eyes of New Year's Day is surely the high season for the oft-maligned practice of catching 40 winks.

At least that is the hope of two young entrepreneurs who are heading into their first holiday season as the proprietors of MetroNaps, a space-age snooze station that opened this year at the Empire State Building.

For $14, sagging shoppers and weary workers can put their feet up for a 20-minute power nap in a dimly lit space filled with seven sleep pods, which look like surplus from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A third of an hour might not sound like much, but a brief mid-afternoon nap can be just the thing to make the rest of the day productive. A 2002 study by Harvard University researchers found that subjects who napped were better able to process information and learn new skills than those who didn't nap.

"We allow people to do more with their day," said MetroNaps co-owner Christopher Lindholst, 29. "There's a natural tendency to be drowsy in the afternoon, but we know that Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. People are leading busier lives, and sleep is the first thing that gets compromised."

Occupying an office space on the skyscraper's 24th floor, MetroNaps has had steady business since opening in May, he said.

The company's custom-built napping stations resemble lounge chairs with their leg rests extended. Nappers can adjust their leg elevation to reduce cardiac strain, and a spherical hood can be pulled down over the upper body for greater darkness.

Headphones pipe in ethereal electronic music that soon induces a trancelike state. After 20 minutes, the back of the chair vibrates and the lights come on in the pod.

"I wake up early every day," said frequent customer Janet Rhew, 22, a special education teacher whose students are preschoolers. "I just find that by early afternoon, after the kids leave, I'm pretty exhausted. It's 20 minutes, and I'm good to go."

Co-owner Arshad Chowdhury came up with the idea for MetroNaps while he was working as an investment banker in New York. In a business notorious for its brutal hours, he saw co-workers fall asleep at their desks or sneak off to the bathroom to take a nap.

While studying for his MBA at Carnegie Mellon University, Chowdhury researched the idea of a business that would charge people to take naps. Although a few companies provide napping lounges for their employees, he knows of no enterprise like MetroNaps.

"There is an unfortunate and outmoded notion of napping," said Chowdhury, 28, referring to the perception that napping is a sign of laziness. "Our biggest challenge was to repackage napping. We had to reinvigorate it with a new style."

Sleep specialists say that ever since Thomas Edison - who took frequent catnaps - invented the light bulb, Americans have been getting less sleep.

A 2001 survey of 1,004 adults by the private National Sleep Foundation in Washington found that 31 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep a night, the minimum amount recommended by sleep experts.

Also, 40 percent of those surveyed said drowsiness interferes with their work anywhere from a few days a month to almost every day.

Even in Spain, Portugal and Italy, lands famously associated with midday slumber, the go-go ethic of contemporary culture and the pressure to stay competitive in the global economy are causing a decline in the siesta.

That led 18 Portuguese artists, politicians and writers last year to form the Association of Friends of the Siesta.

Members pledged to promote the siesta "as a restful pause in the middle of the working day which produces harmonious biological rhythms, frees us from stress and improves the quality of life at the psychosomatic level."

Quite true, according to James Maas, a Cornell University psychologist and the author of the book Power Sleep. What's more, lack of sleep can lead to impaired cognitive functioning, accidents in the workplace and an increased risk of heart attacks.

"The main problem is that people do not see sleep as a necessity," Maas said. "They look at sleep as a luxury. But to be blunt, sleep deprivation makes you stupid, clumsy, and it can shorten your life."

Still, naps are not a panacea for every yawn. There's no substitute for the seven to nine hours of nighttime sleep that most adults require, Maas said.

Too long a nap can leave a person feeling groggy and disoriented, according to James Wyatt, laboratory director of Sleep Disorders Center at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center.

That's because after about 15 minutes, the brain descends into deep sleep, the factor that led MetroNaps to establish its 20-minute schedule - five minutes for relaxing, 15 minutes for napping.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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