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Afternoon Breaks and Ancient Bathing: The Benefits of Circadian Rhythms


At the moment, my husband and I are staying with family in the U.S. state of Nevada. It is early autumn, and when most places are beginning to feel the change of season, we are still experiencing very hot, dry, and sunny days. Fortunately, we are close to Lake Mead, where we can take a midafternoon swim to cool down. To me, the lake is reminiscent of the Mediterranean Sea, particularly some Cycladic Greek Islands, because it is warm, clear blue, rocky, and surrounded by dry mountains. Whenever we swim, I am reminded of the Mediterranean practice of taking an afternoon break, which usually lasts for about 2.5 to 3.0 hours, also known as a siesta in Spain.

I spent my junior university year abroad in Greece, and the midday breaks were scheduled into the teaching hours. We had classes in the morning, followed by a large meal in the early afternoon, and then about a two-hour break. Classes resumed at 4:30 PM and would finish at 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening. The midafternoon pause was peaceful and mentally refreshing. Much to my surprise, I found that my studying productivity improved in comparison to when I tried to work throughout the afternoon when studying in the States.

Recently, there have been some important calls for implementing a four-day work week because there are large numbers of people who are overworked and stressed. Importantly, the studies show that people produce the same amount of work in four days as they do five. They are happier and healthier, all of which contributes to a pleasant working environment. I also wonder if it might be wise to incorporate a midday break into this suggested practice.

The eight-hour work day would still be maintained, but it would be divided so that the break would align with the afternoon when levels of sun and heat make us sleepy and less productive. According to a number of scientific studies, both adults and teenagers have circadian dips in their biological clocks in the afternoon, usually sometime between 1:00 and 3:00 PM. This has been shown to relate to sunlight levels, indicating that our bodily rhythms are directly linked to our surrounding environment.

A Harvard report on an Epic study of Greek men demonstrated that, for the most part, the practice of taking a short nap or break in the afternoon reduced incidents of heart disease. However, the report raises questions that were not addressed in the study, one of the most significant being the cultural acceptability of the practice. In Athens, Greece, a break is conventional. In comparison, the report notes that in Athens, Georgia, a place with similar temperatures, a rest might cause stress because it is seen as an unacceptable and identified as laziness. Yet, what if we changed our attitudes? The idea of a break is nothing new, and even in Roman times it was seen as beneficial.

During the Roman period, the work day was scheduled according to the sunlight and heat, similar to the circadian rhythms of our body clocks discovered in modern scientific examinations. The Roman work-day started at dawn, or the first hour of the day, and ended after the 6th hour of the day, which was about 12:00 or 1:00 in the afternoon. For many Romans, one of their afternoon activities was to visit the public baths, which I liken to my swimming in the lake.

In Roman Italy, it seems as if the seventh or eighth hour of the day, roughly 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, was when they usually attend the baths. There are debates about whether or not men and women, slaves, and children bathed at the same or different times. Nonetheless, the mid-afternoon was ideally deemed best for the activity, and the preponderance of bath house remains found throughout the Roman empire suggests this was an empire-wide tradition. Though times and practices could have differed depending on cultural norms, daylight hours, and temperature.

Aside from the typical building layout of the bathhouses that allowed for people to move through warm and hot rooms, and conclude with a cold plunge, some larger public baths had spaces where people could exercise (palestrae) and use swimming pools (natio). Essentially, the afternoon bath gave the Romans time to look after their bodies, have a mental rest from their work, and associate with friends and possibly family.

Ancient doctors regularly described bathing as a significant part of a healthy daily regimen. For example, Galen, the second century AD physician, repeatedly mentioned in his work on Hygiene the benefits baths had for bodily temperament and humoral balance, as long as it was done at the right time.

Aside from direct health advantages found in both modern and ancient times, the break can also contribute to healthier relationships. It provides time to be with friends and family during the day. This can counteract the common problem of rushing and skipping time with significant others in the evening because of work exhaustion and busy schedules.

Another, less noticeable benefit of this period of rest is that we may become more attuned to living in relation to the movement of the sun and daily temperatures. In so doing, our appreciation of the natural environment might become stronger. That is, if we see ourselves as influenced by nature, we may wish to protect it.

Therefore, with all the stress of trying to balance the normal family schedule while people are working from home because of Covid-19, I suggest a “healthy working life” challenge for a couple of weeks. Try to break from the nine to five schedule and spend a restful two hours or so in the afternoon with those around you. Following this hiatus, return to work to complete the eight-hour day. Are you able to maintain productivity? Do you feel less anxious? And does paying attention to your circadian rhythms make you feel closer to your significant others and the natural world?

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