Presidents have a complicated relationship with sleep. Either they boast about how little they need (we’re looking at you, Trump and Clinton), or, like George W. Bush, they go to bed so early that even their wife makes fun of them.
As we’ve noted previously in our post on the Lincoln bedroom, it’s ironic that President’s Day has become associated with mattress sales, because at least some presidents have had extraordinarily bad luck with mattresses, starting with George Washington, who complained as a young man about having to sleep on a bed of straw ridden with “vermin such as lice and fleas, etc.” Then there was James Garfield, whose new White House mattress may have hastened his demise when its metal coils interfered with Alexander Graham Bell’s attempts to use a metal detector to find the assassin’s bullet lodged in his abdomen.
But despite those tales of presidential mattress misfortune, there are also positive sleep lessons from the occupants of the Oval Office that anyone, regardless of party or political leanings, can learn from. Here are some of the best presidential sleep habits and the science that supports them.
John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
The habit: Exercise. Adams, the nation’s sixth president, maintained a morning workout routine that involved getting up at 5 a.m. and taking either a six-mile walk or an hour-long swim.
The science: Even back then, Adams understood the benefits of a workout early in the day. A 2011 study found that people who worked out in the morning slept longer, experienced deeper sleep cycles, and spent 75% more time in the most reparative stages of slumber (both mind and body) than those who exercised at later times in the day.
Another more recent study found that exercising in the early morning led to a greater decline in nighttime blood pressure than exercising in the afternoon or evening. The decreased blood pressure, in turn, resulted in a night of better quality sleep.
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
The habit: Taking a bath. Presidential nappers didn’t just stick to the prescribed 20-minute time slot usually thought of as a “power nap.” In fact, LBJ’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy, sometimes took up to two hours for his nap, always followed by his second hot bath of the day and a fresh suit of clothes to begin his afternoon of meetings in the Oval Office.
The science: Although JFK took his two daytime baths in large part to soothe his injured back, studies suggest that taking a bath at night can contribute to a better night’s sleep. Body temperature naturally dips at night, helping prepare the body for sleep. A warm bath can help hasten that temperature drop. One study, from Gunma University in Japan, measured the effects of a hot bath before bedtime and found that those of their study subjects who had a warm bath reported better, deeper sleep.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
The habit: Napping. Johnson was famous for his daily afternoon siestas. After waking at 6:30 or 7 a.m., LBJ read the papers, worked until 2 p.m., took a swim or brisk walk, then put on his PJs and napped for 30 minutes. Back up at 4, he resumed what he called his “two-shift day,” sometimes working until 1 or 2 a.m.
The science: A nap of just 26 minutes can boost performance by as much as 34%, according to a NASA study. Napping helps with alertness, learning new skills, and memory processing. Daytime naps can also enhance your sex life, aid in weight loss, cut down on workplace and auto accidents, and reduce the risk of heart attacks.
Even a short, 20- to 30-minute nap can help improve mood, alertness, and work performance—which is why companies like Google, Nike, and British Airways are among the businesses that encourage napping at work. Some employers have dedicated “nap rooms,” while others have “nap pods” placed throughout the office or even encourage employees to take a quick snooze at their desks.
George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) and George W. Bush (2001-2009)
The habit: Prioritize sleep. Like father, like son. Both of the Bushes made getting enough sleep a stated goal of their presidencies. So much so that when George H. W. Bush jetted between time zones on Air Force One, he would pop a sleeping pill to get extra shuteye.
George W. Bush also guarded his sleep, regularly going to bed as early as 9 p.m. and sleeping upwards of nine hours per night. He also rose early and was ready for his debriefings at 6:45 a.m. After his 2000 election, the younger Bush joked, “I’m trying to set the record as the president who got to bed earliest on Inauguration Day.”
The science: There’s no shortage of scientific evidence of the tangible benefits of sleep for health and life, including:
- Better memory: According to the National Institutes of Health, sleeping after learning something new can actually improve your memory. (Anything new you learn is cemented in your brain during the deeper stages of sleep.)
- Better quality of life: One sleep study found that people who slept six to nine hours each night reported having a higher quality of life and ranked lower for depression. Those who slept less than six hours or more than nine hours reported having a lower quality of life and had higher scores for depression severity.
- More creativity: Even when we sleep and dream, our brain is still very active, connecting ideas and thoughts throughout the night. If you’ve gone to sleep after trying to solve a problem or two all day, your brain actively keeps trying to solve them while you sleep.
- Improved attention span: Without enough sleep, your body doesn’t get the right dosages of body chemicals like dopamine (“the feel-good hormone”) and adrenaline. This negatively affects your concentration level and attention span throughout the day. Just one night of bad-quality sleep can result in ADHD-like symptoms such as forgetfulness and difficulty maintaining concentration.
- Lower stress level: When you don’t get enough quality sleep, your blood pressure and stress hormones increase. When you’re tired, you’re also more likely to become agitated and impatient, which in turn can increase stress levels. Stress can also affect your overall quality of sleep, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. More sleep and healthy sleep hygiene are key to helping lower stress.
Barack Obama (2009-2017)
The habit: Healthy late-night snacks. Seven lightly salted almonds helped keep Obama going during his regular late-night solitude of reading and writing in the Treaty Room.
The science: Studies show that certain foods promote sleep more than others. Foods high in melatonin, like tart cherries, can help you fall asleep, while greasy foods like pizza and hamburgers are hard to digest and can keep you up at night. Here are our lists of the best foods to eat before bed and what not to eat before you hit the sheets.
So this Presidents’ Day, take advantage of that extra time off to get some quality shuteye. Think of it as your civic duty.