Rev Up Your Energy

If you just can't seem to get yourself going during the day, chances are you're being robbed by one or more of these four energy thieves.

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD on July 17, 2009
9 min read

Imagine your body as a sleek sports car. If you put premium gasoline in the tank, you would expect it to drive beautifully. Yet what would happen if you left the headlights on all night? Never let the engine run more than once a month or two? Didn't change your oil? Surely, the four-wheeled machine would not run as powerfully as it could with proper maintenance.

Now think of your body in the same light. Even if you fueled your tank with nutritious food, you could still feel exhausted with little sleep, little exercise, and a lot of stress. One or a combination of these elements could drain energy reserves. Add any illnesses or medications that can cause fatigue to the mix, and it seems the world is involved in one big heist to steal your engine.

There is hope. You can rejuvenate your system by following tried-and-true advice from health experts. A lot of their recommendations may seem commonsense. They offer no new, easy, or magical formulas for vigor. Then why follow their suggestions? Perhaps a closer look at four energy thieves can best give the answer.

According to Newton's laws of motion, an object at rest tends to remain at rest, and an object in motion tends to remain in motion, unless acted on by an outside force. This is an important concept in energy production, says Sal Fichera, MS, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and owner of Forza Fitness in New York City.

"The body was designed to be in motion," he explains. "When we're not in motion, everything slows down: circulatory systems, energy production. The body, when it's in motion, has to produce energy through various metabolic processes. If we're not in motion, those processes simply slow down to an extreme case where a person just dies and it stops."

Some people are so sedentary that they walk around as if half-dead, with each step an effort, says Fichera. The more active folks, on the other hand, reach a point where movement feels natural.

Don't blame yourself too much if you belong in the first group. The structure and conveniences of today's society make it easy to sit in front of a desk all day, order in meals, groceries and videos, watch hundreds of television shows at any given time, and phone or email people instead of visiting them in person.

Going against the grain may seem daunting, but it really isn't as difficult or as time-consuming as people think. All it takes is a walk, a breath, or a stretch to infuse energy into an inactive body. Then you can work your way to a regular workout routine, which, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, should be 30 minutes of moderate exercise for adults on most days of the week. The workout minutes could be broken up into 10- to 15-minute segments throughout the day.

Since many of us hardly have the time to incorporate exercise into our busy schedules, Fichera offers the following tips:

  • Just do it. People tend to create reasons and excuses why they cannot work out. It may include not finding the time, waiting until they apply for membership at the gym, or not knowing which exercises to do. "Just make it simple," says Fichera. "Go out and walk."

  • Get the blood pumping. When you are stuck at a desk, get up once in a while to go to the bathroom, visit a co-worker, or take a sip at the water cooler (This also relieves dehydration, another energy drainer). Even the slightest movement will increase blood circulation, bringing oxygen and vital nutrients to the body and mind. Often lack of mental alertness can cause exhaustion.

  • Stretch and stir it up. There are lots of quick ways to pump energy into your system, and all you need is your body. Reach for the ceiling. Put your hands behind your head and do a gentle twist from left to right. Circle your head. Move your eyes around to relieve eye fatigue. March in place. At a break, do a quick set of pushups, sit ups, or jumping jacks.

  • Don't wait for weights. Strength conditioning is another energy enhancer, but you don't have to wait until you go to the gym to work out your muscles. Have an elastic exercise band in your pocket or a pair of dumbbells at your desk for handy toning.

  • Inhale. Exhale. "People on the trading floor should just stop and do some breathing exercises. I swear the economy would do a lot better," jokes Fichera. On a serious note, he says breathing exercises can make people more productive, more creative, and less likely to make mistakes from fatigue.

Lack of shut-eye can cause more than just plain lethargy. Even one night of sleep deprivation can make a person function as if they have had a few alcoholic beverages, says Russell Rosenberg, PhD, Director of Northside Hospital Sleep Medicine Institute in Atlanta.

"You may feel like you can get through the day [with little sleep] and you may not be falling asleep at your desk, but you're not functioning at an optimal level," says Rosenberg, noting people who lack sleep don't perform as well in mental tests compared to those who have gotten enough slumber.

Research backs him up. According to a 1998 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report, the loss of one night's sleep can cause short-term sleepiness. The habitual loss of sleep, even by 1 or 2 hours a night, can lead to chronic sleepiness. Studies show sleepiness leads to car crashes by impairing reaction time, decreasing attention and focus, and decreasing the ability to perform mental tasks.

Sleep deprivation can also cause death and injury. The NHTSA reports there are about 56,000 crashes annually from drowsy driving and fatigue.

"The main purpose of sleep is to give you a restorative healing, a sense of alertness, and to improve both mood and your mental functioning," says Rosenberg. Without these gifts from sleep, energy would be lacking.

To catch more winks and receive its energy-boosting benefits, the National Sleep Foundation gives the following suggestions:

  • Examine your life. Look at your diet, exercise patterns, sleeping environment, personal habits, lifestyle, and current concerns, and determine if any of these elements may be getting in the way of getting a good night's sleep. If not enough time for sleep is a problem, try re-evaluating your priorities.

  • Consider the effects of caffeine and alcohol on your system. Some people have trouble sleeping at night even if they have a small amount of caffeine in the morning. Others have problems snoozing if they have caffeine close to bedtime. Alcoholic drinks, on the other hand, may help some folks doze off initially, but their slumber may not be restful.

  • Watch what you eat. Certain foods may cause heartburn that can keep you up in the middle of the night. Drinking a lot of fluids close to bedtime can wake you up as well with trips to the bathroom. Also, be careful of eating too much or not enough. Both can disrupt sleep.

  • Don't smoke. Studies show nicotine, a stimulant, is associated with sleeping and waking difficulties.

  • Create an ideal sleep environment. Use your bed only for sleep. Make sure your mattress provides enough support. If noise is a problem, consider wearing ear plugs, playing relaxing music, or placing rugs, heavy curtains, or double-pane windows in your bedroom. Make sure the room is comfortable, dark, and cool.

  • Exercise at the right time. Studies show physical activity in the late afternoon can improve the quality of sleep, but working out 2 to 3 hours before bedtime may delay slumber.

  • Set a regular bedtime and wake-time schedule. Sleeping late or sleeping in may seem ideal on weekends, but it may give you trouble getting to bed on Sunday evening, or waking up on Monday morning.

  • Find time to relax before going to sleep. Bedtime rituals can help you unwind and encourage a more restful sleep. Different activities work for different people. Try gentle music, soaking in a warm bath, meditation, or a prayer.

Stress is a natural part of life and manifests itself when people worry, fear for safety and security, procrastinate, or try to juggle too many responsibilities. When the strain becomes too heavy or is not handled properly, it could wreak havoc on our physical and mental well-being.

"When we are under all that stress, it generates negative emotions. It makes us sad, frustrated, angry, or depressed," says Bruce Compas, PhD, a Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor in the department of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. These negative emotions, he says, can disrupt sleep, alter eating habits, interfere with the motivation to exercise, and distract from creative and focused thinking at work.

The pressure also activates a fight-or-flight response that releases various hormones in our body. "Stress gets us prepared to make a physical response," says Compas. "The problem is that most of the stressors that we now face in modern life don't require or even allow for a physical response."

The result is a huge physical toll on our system, which can contribute to fatigue. Heart rate and blood pressure go up. Muscles prepare for movement. Without physical action, the hormones don't have an outlet for release and end up harming our cardiovascular system and possibly compromising our immune system.

To keep stress from draining your energy reserves, Compas suggests the following:

  • Take action on issues that are within your control. If pressure at work is the problem, determine what you can do to change your circumstances. Perhaps it could be looking for a different job, asking your employer or a co-worker to act a different way, or changing your work schedule. "Not taking action would be a missed opportunity," says Compas. "You can reduce stress by getting to the source of it."

  • Learn to respond to stress. For stressors that are inevitable, you can cope with relaxation techniques. Popular methods include yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (tightening and relaxing different muscles), and meditation. Compas suggests practicing a stress management technique so that you can call up the same feeling of relaxation during stressful periods. Trying to relax without practice would be a more difficult strategy. "An example would be someone who has trouble with public speaking, and they have to give a presentation at work," Compas explains. "They're not going to learn how to relax while giving that talk. They have to learn how to relax separate from that by practicing and practicing, and then bringing that response they've now learned into the situation."

The pain and symptoms of certain ailments can contribute to exhaustion. Obesity, for example, can put a strain on the body's cardiovascular system, even while performing normal activities. "It's a vicious cycle," says Larry Fields, MD, a member of the board of directors for the American Academy of Family Physicians. "Because you are obese, you are obviously not exercising, and you're less likely to exercise. The less exercise you get, the more fatigued and deconditioned you become."

Obesity is also associated with heart disease and diabetes, medical conditions that have fatigue as a symptom. Other illnesses that can cause low energy include thyroid disease, arthritis, lung disease, and depression. The tiredness usually ebbs with proper management of the illness, says Fields. Talk to your doctor about treatment options.

Be aware, however, that certain medications can have fatigue as a side effect. Some common culprits are high blood pressure pills called beta-blockers, sleep aids, antiseizure drugs, migraine drugs, and antihistamines.

To clear up the problem, talk to your doctor about the possibility of reducing dosage or substituting the medicine with a similar drug.

No matter how resilient the human body, disease, drugs, abuse, and neglect can lead to a sluggish system. To obtain and sustain high-quality energy, it is important to take the time to plan your sources of power.

"Your energy has got to be your first priority," says Jon Gordon, author of Energy Addict: 101 Mental, Physical, & Spiritual Ways to Energize Your Life. "If you have no energy, you have no life. If you have no energy, you have no career. If you have no energy, you can't make a difference."

Planning for your energy involves thinking about your meals, sleep hours, workout schedule, and stress management ahead of time and making time for them. Also make time to see your doctor on a regular basis. Making good choices will not only boost your energy, it will rejuvenate your life.