Who among us hasn't experienced spells of tiredness or lack of energy, often at the worst possible times, when we just want to get things done?
As someone who works office hours but has many side projects that she wants to pursue outside of working hours, I for one tend to struggle with low energy levels and the frustration that comes with not being able to achieve everything I'd like to in a day.
The reasons why you may feel tired and depleted of energy can vary from simple, such as lack of sleep or dealing with stress at work, to much more complex ones, such as living with a chronic condition or following treatment for a chronic disease.
While dealing with fatigue caused by a chronic condition may be more difficult, forming some good lifestyle habits can help you to maximize your energy levels on a day-to-day basis. Read on for our tips on how to feel more awake and alert.
1. Pay attention to diet
One of our main sources of energy is, of course, the food we eat. So, if we want to keep our energy levels up, we must eat healthfully and try to integrate the most nutritious foods in our diets. We measure the energy that we can derive from foods in calories.
If we don't consume enough calories our bodies may feel tired, as they don't have enough "fuel" to run on. At the same time, however, if we get too many calories, there's a system overload, and we may end up feeling sluggish.
So, in order to feel fresh and ready for action, we must learn to maintain a balance in terms of our calorie intake.
Official guidelines from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion for 2015–2020 suggest that women should have a calorie intake of 1,600–2,400 per day, and men of 2,000–3,000 per day. The exact amount varies depending on age, body weight, and height.
But energy is not just about the amount of calories; it's also about their quality. Some foods provide an energy kick but have little or no nutritional value. This means that they will not support a healthful energy reserve and may harm you in the long-term.
Such foods are a source of so-called empty calories, and they typically include processed and ultra-processed products, such as candy, chips, and soda.
But what are some specific foods that you might want to add into your diet at a time when you feel tired and in urgent need of an energy boost?
While a dedicated health report put together by the Harvard Medical School explains that there is little research about how specific foods may alter a person's energy levels, it also concedes that some foods might be more helpful in boosting stamina than others.
Therefore, Harvard specialists advise going for foods "with a low glycemic index" — that is, whose sugar content is broken down by our bodies at a slow rate.
This means that energy derived from these foods is released gradually, helping to keep us alert for longer.
Such foods include wholegrains, nuts, and some fruits — particularly grapes, apples, oranges, peaches, pears, and grapefruit — and vegetables and legumes with a high fiber content, including peas, beans, and leafy greens.
Research has also demonstrated that bananas can be a great source of energy. For instance, a study published in PLOS One has shown that eating bananas can better sustain energy and aid metabolic recovery in the case of cyclists than sports drinks, which supposedly contain an ideal energy "mix."
Also, if you're not feeling at your best, it's important to make sure you stay hydrated. Fatigue can be a symptom of dehydration, so making sure that you drink enough water throughout the day could help to alleviate the feeling of tiredness.
Coffee or no coffee?
For so many of us, coffee is the go-to solution when we don't feel as awake as we'd like. But is this actually what we need to make us feel more energized? (As I write this, I'm enjoying the last sip of my third coffee of the day, so I dearly hope that the answer to this question is "yes.")
The authors of the Harvard Medical School report explain that caffeine — which naturally occurs in coffee, tea, and cocoa — can help to improve concentration and render our brains more alert and receptive.
Caffeine also increases your pulse, which may lend you more physical strength for a while.
But, the authors caution, these effects may not be seen in habitual drinkers (like me), whose bodies may have built up tolerance to this substance.
They also caution that people who don't think they're getting enough of an energy boost from their daily dose of coffee may gradually increase the intake and become dependent on caffeine, which will affect overall health without bringing any benefits.
However, for people to whom a cup of coffee is only an occasional solution to sluggishness or that afternoon slump, research has actually determined at which time of day coffee should be drunk for the best effect.
The answer? You should have your cup of coffee at 10:30 in the morning — or at least between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. — when your levels of cortisol, the hormone that helps to regulate metabolism, are at their highest.
This may maximize the effect caffeine has on your body, the study suggests.
2. Do some light exercise
Sometimes, in the middle of the work day, I start to feel sluggish and my brain can "shut down."
At those times, I find it useful to get up from my chair, stretch a little, walk around the office, and then continue work at the standing desk.
A little movement helps to revitalize me, and no wonder.
As specialists from the Harvard Medical School explain in their dedicated report, although exercise may not be the first thing that you'll want to do when feeling depleted of energy, it stimulates your body and mind in some vital ways.
First, they write, in any form of exercise, at cellular level, more energy-producing units form in your muscles, so that your body may sustain the activity.
Exercise also "increases your body's oxygen-carrying capacity" and boosts circulation, so said oxygen will reach and "feed" all your body parts sooner.
Moreover, it stimulates the release of stress hormones — in moderation — which make you feel more energized and alert.
"But what type of exercise should you do?" ask the report authors, who then go on to explain that, in short, anything will do — just as long as you engage in some kind of physical activity.
"You don't have to spend a lot of time worrying about this. When it comes to exercise and energy, it's hard to go wrong — and you don't have to run for miles or work out to the point of exhaustion to start reaping benefits."
A recent study involving hundreds of participants over a period of 15 years confirms that doing just half an hour of light aerobic exercise every day will help you to stay healthy, and it will bring long-reaching profit.
3. Put time aside for yoga, meditation
Practicing yoga and meditation might also help to boost your energy levels. This is because these practices focus on techniques — such as mindful breathing — that aim to promote a state of calm.
So, if your fatigue is due — at least in part — to increased stress, taking up yoga or meditation as a routine "self-care" approach can help you to become more resistant to stressors.
Another study saw that engaging in just 25 minutes of yoga or meditation — compared with 25 minutes of quiet reading — could boost peoples' mood, as well as their energy levels and executive function.
A review of studies investigating the health benefits of yoga also concluded that this practice can improve resilience to stress in people working in fairly high-intensity domains, as well as reduce anxiety and improve the symptoms of depression.
4. Learn to delegate tasks
This might not seem to be an available option for many of us who have taken on too numerous hats — perhaps as partners, parents, or dedicated career people.
We might feel stifled by our responsibilities — from the very small daily chores, such as doing the dishes, to the less mundane, such as a vital work project with many ramifications.
However, if we don't find a decent strategy to redistribute some of these responsibilities, at least from time to time, it may lead to burnout and a constant sense of fatigue in our day-to-day lives, which is not at all conducive to productivity and happiness.
Research has shown that people who invest in services that allow them to stop worrying about some of the house chores that they dislike, so that they don't have to deal with the mental and physical overload, have a greater sense of overall well-being.
"[O]ur research suggests," explains Elizabeth Dunn, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, "people should [...] consider buying their way out of unpleasant experiences."
5. Don't underestimate sleep
Finally, it's vital to make sure that you get enough good-quality sleep at night to prevent fatigue or recover from the effect of tiring or stressful activity throughout the day.
Although this may be the most obvious advice, many of us often underestimate the impact that shortened sleeping time, or disrupted sleep, can have on our energy levels and health and well-being, in general.
How much sleep we need largely depends on our age and some other factors. However, on average, adults should sleep for around 7–9 hours per night in order to feel refreshed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that, to get a good night's sleep, we should form a healthful routine. This includes going to bed at roughly the same time each night and getting up at roughly the same time every morning. And yes, this means no weekend lie-ins!
They also advise avoiding exposure to bright screens — such as those of smartphones, laptops, or tablets — just before bed, as this interferes with your natural body clock, leading to a state of alertness that will keep you awake even if you are tired and would like to sleep.
In short, the key takeaway from this Spotlight is that if you lack the energy that you think you should have, make sure that you familiarize yourself with your own needs and prioritize them.
Caffeine might help you to feel more alert in the short-term, but there are no shortcuts for keeping your energy resources well stocked. So, it's best to form healthful habits that will help you to cope with stress and avoid energy depletion.