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Steps to Jump-Start Your Energy Level

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

There is good news.  As we age, fatigue and energy loss is not life sentences.  A Harvard Medical School Special Health Report on “Boosting Your Energy,” describes “A 7-Step Plan to Jump-Start Your Natural Energy” for all ages.  

Step #1: Set goals – determine where to expend your energy. Setting goals can be a motivator.  Ask yourself why do you want more energy?  Is it to just feel better?  Is there something you are doing that would be more enjoyable with more energy?   Write down priorities so you can exert energy into activities that mean the most.

Step #2: Control Stress. According to the report, stress is the most common cause of persistent fatigue.  The response to stress is the problem.  Some individuals are better at handling it than others.

Consider the following as stress reducers:  talking to a friend or therapist; joining a support group; using relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, tai chi and massage; or writing your feelings in a journal.

Step #3: Decrease your load.  Overwork is one of the main reasons for fatigue.  The heavy load may include obligations that are professional, family related or social.  Saying “no” can be difficult. But we don’t have to accept every volunteer work opportunity or social invitation.  The key is to streamline and simplify the “must do” activities.

Overload from work is a challenge, particularly in the current environment of layoffs and furloughs.  Perhaps the best one can do is to be efficient and ask for temporary assistance. Social and volunteer commitments may need to decrease, upsetting the semblance of a balance in life.  Hopefully, if the imbalance occurs, it will be temporary.

Step #4: Get regular exercise. Sometimes the last thing we feel like doing when exhausted is exercising.  Yet that’s exactly what we need.  Exercise increases our body’s capacity to make fuel.  When we use our muscles, more mitochondria, which is energy producing, form in the muscle cells. Therefore muscles have more energy to burn.

Also, exercise creates more capillaries, the tiny blood vessels that carry oxygen to the cells.  When we breathe deeply and our heart rate increases, more oxygen gets circulated.  Finally, with a work out, our body releases epinephrine and norepinephrine.  In small amounts when created by exercise, these stress hormones make us feel more energized.

Step #5: Improve sleep.  Suffering from a sleep disorder such as apnea requires medical care.  For most others who don’t sleep well, changing lifestyle habits can help.    First, avoid smoking.  Nicotine is a stimulant to the nervous system, increasing heart rate, raising blood pressure and stimulating brain activity associated with wakefulness, making it harder to fall asleep.

Second, consider exercise.  According to the report, “exercise is the only proven way to increase the amount of time in deep sleep, the type of sleep which restores energy.”

Third, keep the bedroom as a sleep environment, “for sleeping or sex.” And go to bed when you are tired. Get up if you can’t sleep rather than tossing and turning and worrying that you are not asleep.

Finally, if all else fails, speak to your doctor about sleep medications.  Know that some medications cause dependency; others may leave you groggy the next morning.

Step #6: Eat for Energy.  Lack of nutrition can contribute to fatigue.  Note that not eating enough, overeating, lack of fluids and vitamin and mineral deficiencies can contribute to feeling drained of energy.

Eat small meals frequently:  Nutritionists agree that it is better to eat small meals frequently rather than three large meals a day, particularly if fatigue is a problem.  Since the brain has few energy reserves, it needs a constant supply of nutrients rather than a quick fix from simple carbohydrates such as soft drinks, candy bars and cookies.  It doesn’t take much to feed the brain.  A few nuts or a piece of fruit will do it.

Overeating does not help.  Ever wonder why you want to take a nap after indulging in a large meal?  All that food temporarily floods the blood with sugar, creating a surge of insulin and a lift.  “Insulin, a hormone that carries sugar to the cells, can pull too much sugar from the blood and into the muscle cells for storage,” according to the Harvard report. That leaves too little energy available for immediate use.  The result is feeling tired or exhausted.    Overeating also causes weight gain that forces us to expend even more energy in everything we do.

Avoid crash diets:  Losing weight should be a gradual process without eliminating calories needed for energy.  Fatigue can be caused by poor nutrition and inadequate calories.  Remember, the brain needs a constant supply of glucose from food; it has little reserves of its own.

Limit alcohol:  Omit the luncheon cocktail or glass of wine if you want to avoid the need to take an afternoon nap – an impractical activity in a work setting.  And if you plan to finish a report in the evening, spend time with family, pay your bills or pursue a hobby, avoid the 5:00 p.m. cocktail.   Alcohol may have an initial calming effective and later act as a stimulant.  The perfect glasses of wine at dinner may help you fall asleep, but also help you wake up at 3:00 a.m.

Drink water:  Water is the “only nutrient that has been shown to enhance performance for all but the most demanding enduring activities,” the report says. It is the main component of blood and is essential in carrying nutrients to the cells and removing waste products.  Fatigue is one of the first signs of being short on fluids.

Be aware of the glycemic load:  “The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly sugar derived from a particular food is absorbed in your bloodstream,” according to the report. Foods with high glyemic indexes that are quickly absorbed include cornflakes, donuts, waffles, plain bagels, ice cream and cheese pizza.   Eating foods with low glycemic indexes are foods with sugars that are absorbed slowly, helping avoid the energy lag. These include multigrain breads, low-fat yogurt, fruits and vegetables and many types of pasta.

Step #7: Commune with Nature. Although there are no scientific studies to document “communing with nature” as a cure for fatigue, there is sufficient anecdotal evidence for scientists to explore the theory.  Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson supports a theory that being in nature can have restorative and therapeutic effects.   His theory, “biophilia” indicates that “humans have an innate connection to the natural world and to other living things, and that contact with nature can benefit your health.”  Many of us have felt restored after hiking, walking in a beautiful garden or bird watching.  At the least, getting outdoors can reduce stress.  And often being outdoors involves exercise, a known energy booster.

Hopefully these tips will help retain and expand the energy we need to do what is important to each of us – with our family, work, leisure activities, community or environment.

Declining energy with age is not a life sentence.  Consider implementing some of these energy-boosting tips.  The payoff will be a plus to our lives.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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