Bring back the arvo nap to combat summer heat

Dr Simon Quilty

Having an arvo nap may be better for your health than cranking up the air con to combat the heat this summer.

Too much air conditioning may be harming our health, according to a study led by researchers at the Australian National University (ANU).

Despite spending substantially more time in air-conditioned spaces over the past 40 years, people in Australia’s Northern Territory (NT) have paradoxically become more vulnerable to heat-related deaths, the research shows.

However, Aboriginal communities in the NT are no more vulnerable to heat despite high burdens of chronic illness, extreme socioeconomic and housing inequity and far less access to air-conditioned spaces. The reason for this apparent discrepancy appears to be cultural, according to the authors.

“It’s generally accepted that technological innovations such as air-conditioning are critical in preparing for hotter climates,” said lead author and PhD candidate at the ANU National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Dr Simon Quilty.

“But our research shows that the social and cultural practices developed by First Nations people over generations, such as reducing physical exertion in hotter parts of the day, are powerful mechanisms for protecting human health.”

Cultural heat avoidant practices as simple as staying out of the hot afternoon sun or the siesta, which have been used in hot climates around the globe for centuries, may provide powerful protection against heat extremes caused by climate change.

Even though the siesta has all but disappeared from places such as Spain, the recent extreme weather in Europe might be prompting a comeback. According to the authors, hot climate communities need to start considering sociocultural means of adapting to hotter weather.

Sunrise over the Pacific Ocean viewed from the southern cliffs of Bondi Beach, Sydney on 4 March 2023.

“This is a story of how Aboriginal culture and knowledge of environment has enabled extraordinary resilience to extreme weather.”

The authors argue that these findings are important for housing policy and design in very hot regions of the world.

Norman Frank, Jupurrurla, Warumungu Elder and co-author, said there is an urgent need for better housing.

“Today we still live like we used to live in humpies, our houses are poor and overcrowded…these houses have been built for England or cold country. We need houses to be built for this hot climate here in Tennant Creek today,” he said.

“While cool, air-conditioned spaces offer essential refuge during extreme high temperatures, it is possible that extended periods in air-conditioned spaces may prevent people from adapting to the prevailing climate,” said study co-author from ANU, Associate Professor Aparna Lal.

“Instead, housing in hot climates should be designed to ensure passive cooling, where people live comfortably within the predominant climate and at the same time require minimal energy costs for cooling.”

Many Australian Indigenous sociocultural concepts have allowed communities to thrive in hot weather for many thousands of years, and the researchers argue that policymakers need to start recognising the importance of culture and listening to First Nations knowledge.

“As extreme hot temperatures become more common, the most important tool we have to adapt to climate change may be cultural change,” Dr Quilty said.

“It’s time to learn from First Nations people and other societies from the past that used culture as a tool to thrive in hot climates.

“Perhaps we should all be having an arvo nap when it’s hot rather than turning up the AC.”

The research has been published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

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