You’ve got some serious goals. Some are fitness related, some aren’t. You know what you want to do, and you might even know how to do it… but you don’t quite feel like tackling it right now. Carpe Diem Cras—seize the day tomorrow. That’s what they say, right?
It’s not just you. It’s actually pretty normal to feel too tired to take on new challenges. In fact, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) says women between the ages of 18 and 44 are nearly twice as likely as men to report feeling very tired or exhausted.
In another survey taken at a women’s health symposium, fatigue was rated as the number one and most common health concern. When asked why they thought they were tired, the five most common responses in order were: working both at home and at work, poor sleep, lack of time for themselves, lack of exercise, and financial worries (among a ton of other reasons).
Maybe you’ve got something in common with the women above, feeling overworked and like you haven’t had a decent sleep in weeks. Or perhaps you already feel amazing (right on!) and want to get even more out of your life.
Unfortunately, those “5 quick tips for an instant energy boost” articles likely won’t help with your energy woes. That’s just click-bait, not a solution that properly addresses the root of the issue.
We’re going to cover the three best research-backed ways to actually improve your own energy, wakefulness, alertness, and performance in the short and long-term. They might not be the sexiest or simplest solutions out there, but they’re very thorough, healthy, effective, and long lasting.
…but for fun, we’ll also share a few juicy sizzling-hot-but-still-evidence-based quick-action tips at the end of the article that actually work.
Chickity-Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
We aren’t doctors, nor do we pretend to be on the internet. If you’re feeling overly or chronically tired, that could signal an underlying health concern. For example, the World Health Organization writes that iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, and this deficiency is especially common among long distance runners and vegetarians/vegans. An iron deficiency can cause anaemia, and anaemia can cause fatigue (study, study, study).
If you’re now thinking, “I’m a vegathon runner. That must be it. I should take iron pills.”—not so fast! We’re trying to say that issues like this can only be properly diagnosed by visiting a doctor. It’s not a good idea to blindly take supplements, which is expensive and potentially dangerous if no deficiency is present.
We could give you scarier examples of rarer health problems that could cause fatigue, but we aren’t trying to give you a panic attack. If you’re looking to boost your anxiety we recommend the experts: WebMD.
If you’re feeling healthy though—and keep in mind that low energy is the most common health concern among healthy women—onwards and upwards!
Energy-Boost #1: Fine Tuning Your Sleep & Biological Clock
Why You Should Try to Improve Your Sleep
Getting a great night’s sleep is one of the best ways to feel energized. Before you can berate me for making the most obvious statement of the year, first let me explain. Even if you think you’re sleeping really well—which is pretty uncommon in this stressful world—you’re probably not even close to sleeping and waking as well as you could be.*
(Doc’s notice number two: getting quality sleep can be very complicated for some people—childhood factors, behavioural traits, neurological/medical/psychiatric disorders, neurobiological disorders, family variables, medications being taken, and primary sleep disorders can impact getting a decent night’s sleep (article). Visit your doctor if you feel like you have an unusually rough time sleeping.)
While we don’t fully understand why we sleep, we have a good idea of what sleep can affect. We all know that not sleeping well will mean feeling tired and low energy the next day, but that’s just the beginning:
- You’ll have a harder time building muscle (study).
- You’ll gain fat more quickly (study, study, study)
- You’ll have less willpower to make good decisions and to manage your mood. (Willpower, 2012)
- Your skin will age faster (study), and you’ll look worse (study).
- You’ll be less morally aware (study).
- You won’t be able to learn new things as well. (article, study, study)
- You’ll be less creative. (study, article)
- Your risk increases for a ton of diseases, such as: strokes, obesity, heart attacks, and cancer. (study, study)
- Your immune system will be weakened. (study, study)
Now that you’re a bit more motivated to get some quality zzz’s, what exactly does it mean to get a good sleep? Experts define good sleep as when you fall asleep easily, do not fully wake up during the night, do not wake up too early, and feel fully refreshed in the morning (article).
Doesn’t that sound like a dream come true?
Most of us could improve our sleeping routine to either help fall asleep better or wake up better—or both. But first, we should understand how our natural sleep rhythm works. You’ll often hear people simplify this wakefulness/sleepiness cycle down to just our circadian rhythm, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
There are two systems that work together to control our wakefulness: our sleep drive and our biological clock. While we go about our day our sleep drive accumulates, while we sleep it depletes. If this system existed on its own, we’d gradually become less alert over the course of the day. However, we’re typically quite alert in the evening—even after being awake for a dozen hours. This is because our second system, the biological clock, counterbalances our sleep drive. At certain points of the day it pumps us full of alertness. This biological clock and the systems it runs (including our circadian rhythm) allows us to feel alert even as the day wears on (article).
Now let’s run a few scenarios. When you stay up late Sunday night and need to wake up early Monday morning for work, your body doesn’t get the sleep it requires, so your sleep drive isn’t fully depleted. Since you’ve still got some lingering sleep drive right when you wake up, this makes you feel sleepy all day. Your biological clock will still send out alertness signals, but because your sleep drive will be stronger than normal, the alerting signals can’t fully counterbalance it making you feel lower energy and tired.
After a long exhausting week, the kind where it feels like you just can’t quite catch up, you’ll sleep in Saturday and Sunday morning to fully clear your sleep drive. But sleeping in will delay your biological clock, and the alerting signals that make you feel awake won’t start firing until later in the day. If this system doesn’t start early enough, it’ll be hard to feel fully awake during the day… and by the time you do feel awake, you should really be getting to sleep so you can sleep long enough for the next day. Since you’re not tired, you stay up late, rob yourself of sleep, and curse the alarm clock at 6:30 a.m.
Then the cycle repeats.
When it comes to sleep, you can feel tired in the morning for a couple of reasons:
- Lingering sleep drive. Not getting enough quality sleep that your body requires.
- Mistimed bioclock signals. Not waking up fully because the alerting signals from your biological clock aren’t in-sync with the day.
Why does all this matter? Because it’ll help you figure out how to adjust your sleep habits.
How to Get to Sleep Better
Exercise regularly. Studies show that moderate exercise has us waking up feeling more refreshed, improves our mood and vitality, and improves our sleep quality. Exercise is the most inexpensive and simple way of improving our sleep, and the risk of negative side effects is very small (study, study).
Lifting weights is great for this because muscle is so incredibly healthy (article), it’s fun and rewarding to build strength, it can be great cardiovascular exercise, and more muscle will probably make you look better—all while helping you get to sleep.
Doing things that raise your heart rate is healthy too. Swimming, biking, walking uphill, playing some casual sports, etc. If you aren’t getting enough cardio from your weightlifting routine (or you aren’t lifting weights) you might want to do some other types of cardio, too.
Be conscious of light brightness & hue. You probably already know that the sun can improve your health by getting your vitamin D production going, but it also helps us program our biological clock. We use the bright “blue” light from the sun to signal to us that it’s daytime—awake time. This kickstarts our biological clock and gets those alerting signals firing, boosting serotonin/melatonin levels (article).
Serotonin in our body is affected by exposure to daylight (among other things, like exercise). Moderately high levels of serotonin help put you in a positive mood, so it’s often called the “happiness hormone” (alongside endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin). It will help you feel energized and amazing in general.
Generations ago, most people worldwide were farmers. One melatonin researcher found that light levels outside on a summer day can be 1000x brighter than typical indoor lighting (article). We’re not just talking about tropical farming either. Even on a cloudy day during in the middle of a cold winter here in Canada, a farmer would have been exposed to more than 1000 lux—far brighter than indoor lighting.
In a recent study analyzing how much sunlight people were exposed to at the latitude of 45° N*, researchers found that people were only exposed to 1000+ lux for 30 minutes a day during the winter, and 90 minutes in the summer. These were regular people getting out of the house and working at least 30 hours a week. Even the amount of light they got during the summer was considerably less than what our great grandparents would have gotten in the winter (article).
We’re starting to finally understand that we’re living in a “light deprived society” and we’re feeling the consequences. Some clever entrepreneurs have used this as a business opportunity, and are opening up shops to address the problem, like the “light cafe” in Sweden (link).
*Some examples of cities at 45°N-50°N are Montreal, Ottawa, Portland, Lyon, Paris, Milan, Venice, Vienna, Munich, etc.
Bright light matters. When you’re exposed to very bright light during the day, our melatonin production starts sooner, which means we enter into sleep more easily at night. Getting bright morning light is helpful against insomnia and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
If you work inside all day or you live in a high latitude country, you should consider making an effort to get some more bright light during the day (and ask your doctor if you’re getting enough vitamin D).
Blue light. Aside from brightness, the colour temperature (the hue) from the sun also helps signal to our body that it’s daytime. During the day sunlight has a blue hue. Because we’re used to seeing things outside, blue coloured light gives us the most accurate colour depiction. This is why all of our computer screens, TVs and iPads are emitting blue light. This is wonderful during the day, but troublesome at night. Exposure to this type of light when it isn’t daytime throws off our biological clock and keeps us awake at night.
You can see how this is a problem. Let’s say you do some late night texting, TV watching or computer using. Then you remember, even though you’re not that tired, that you need to wake up early. You head to bed, but you have trouble falling asleep. So maybe you whip out your iPad in bed to occupy yourself instead of just lying there waiting. One study found that just reading on your iPad before bed, because of the light, can delay your sleep by as much as an hour and cause you to feel sleepier in the morning (study)!
Amber, yellow & dim light. Just like blue “sunlight” tells our bodies that it’s daytime, dim amber or yellow coloured light—sunsets, fires, candles—tell us that the day is over. This stops the alerting signals from your biological clock and allows your body to start preparing to fall asleep.
So if you need to use your laptop at night, you can switch the colour that it emits. F.lux is a free app that will slowly change the colour of your screen to coincide with the sunset outside (based on your timezone). If you read until you fall asleep, either read a paper book or use a lightless e-ink reader with a very dim amber/yellow table lamp. iPads cannot have their colour temperature adapt with the day—the only emit a blue hued light, making them a poor choice for extended use after sunset. (Jailbroken iPhones/iPads can install f.lux though!).
If you watch TV at night to help gear into bed, things get trickier. You still have some options, but they’re a bit weird…
Since you can’t install colour temperature software on your TV (yet), you can use amber/yellow tinted glasses (e.g. Gunnar glasses), cut and place a yellow acetate sheet to fit on your TV. If you don’t want to turn your TV into an arts and crafts project, you might also have some luck adjusting the picture settings to give your TV a more yellowish hue and a dimmer backlight. … or promise yourself that you’ll only watch darkly lit low key crime scene shows. (When I’m watching Lost at night, the brilliant Hawaiian blues are really beautiful but definitely perk me up.)
As you near your bedtime, start turning off or dimming your lights. When you brush your teeth and wash your face, use a dim or amber tinted nightlight instead of turning on your regular bright bathroom lights. If you’ve got (quite) a few bucks to spare, you could even outfit your place with Philips Hue lightbulbs, which can be controlled by your phone and programmed to dim and change colour temperature at night.
So basically you just want to get a lot of bright blue light (preferably sunlight) to fully wake you up during the day, and then gear down after sunset with dimmer and more yellow-y lights. Obviously we can’t totally control what light we’re exposed to, but every little bit counts.
Be careful about late night social interaction. Studies have demonstrated that both light and social cues help set our biological clock to a 24 hour period. Even after making people live in bunkers or caves with no daylight, social elements helped them stick to a 24 hour day. But once the social cues were removed, these poor lonely and daylight starved test subjects started to slip into a 28 hour day (study).
In another study, researchers took participants to live out in the country and simulated ancient living conditions (except unlike our ancestors, they didn’t need to worry about food). People began going to bed a lot earlier—around 9:30 p.m. The researchers noted that many studies point to social interactions being a major zeitgeber (cue for our biological clocks). In fact, some researchers think we don’t even get enough light during the day to properly cue our clocks, so it’s really the social interactions that help keep us in time (study).
For those who participated in the ancient living study, we can logically conclude that without having access to the Internet, which would expand their social stimulation, once the majority headed to bed things got dull and everyone went to bed.
Many of us have had some experience living in pretty ideal conditions at some point in our lives. Have you ever travelled to a beautiful place where you’ve spent most of your days out walking in the sun, your evenings being social, and then passed out—hard—by 10 p.m? If you woke up without a hangover, you probably felt pretty good!
Black out your bedroom. During a blackout in ’94, many Los Angelites called local emergency centres to report strange lights in the sky. Sadly, none of them knew they were staring at the beautiful Milky Way…
(If you want an idea of what LA is “supposed” to look like, check out these photos.)
If you live in the city, I can pretty much guarantee that you’re getting a ton of light “pollution”—light that is bright enough that it’s telling your body that it’s still daytime.
Even those living in rural areas can be unlucky enough to have a street lamp just outside their house. To get a truly restful sleep you might need to black out your bedroom with curtains or blinds. We’re not sure at what point light pollution becomes disruptive, or how bad it truly is for our health (article), but blacking out your room is a good way to play it safe.
Blacking out your bedroom does create a whole new problem though—no morning sunlight to wake you up! Fortunately that’s probably a less serious issue health-wise but we’ll discuss solutions for it in the next section.
Gear down at night. According to the National Institute of Health, people report that it’s easier to sleep when they have time to wind down into a less active state. Having a hot bath, drinking warm caffeine-free tea, reading, are all good options (PDF).
Keep your bedroom cool, but not cold. Researchers think we’re partial to going to bed at dusk and waking at dawn partly because of the temperature changes. During the day our bodies associate heat with daytime. During the night, the temperature falls, so our bodies use it as a cue that we should be gearing down for bed. When your core temperature lowers, it becomes easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. While being either too cold or too hot will disrupt your sleep, being too cold will ruin your sleep the most (study).
It’s hard to recommend an ideal temperature that works for everyone because of the variations in genetics, health, age, body-fat levels, and even the humidity of the room. However, one study claims that room temperature between 16-19C (60-66 Fahrenheit) is perfect with pajamas and at least one sheet, so that’s a good starting point. It’s best to use some sort of sheets or blankets because it helps protect you from changes in the environment allowing you stay asleep (study).
When you’re a couple hours away from trying to fall asleep and ready to start gearing down, that’s when you should lower the temperature of the room.
How to Wake Up Energized
Get to bed early enough to fully reset your sleep drive. This one will require some serious self-control. In Willpower, co-written by the famous researcher Roy Baumeister, they wrote that we only get a small amount of willpower each day, and if we want to truly capitalize on it, then the best thing we can do is to use that willpower to carve out enough time to sleep. Netflix* isn’t watching out for how many hours of sleep you get each night.
*We love Netflix. We aren’t immune to its allures either.
Set your thermostat to warm up your bedroom between 3–7 a.m. One study found increasing the temperature 3 C between 3–7 a.m. helped the sleepers wake up feeling fresh (study). Heat promotes wakefulness and gets us out of deep sleep (REM and slow wave sleep), easing us into waking up.
I personally tried this for a week or so and found the heat was waking me up too early. If you decide to try this, you may want to experiment with the timing based on exactly when you want to wake up.
Use bright light to cue your body to wake up. After you wake up, you’ll want to be exposed to bright lights and get moving as soon as possible. One of the best ways to do this is go for a quick walk outside in the morning. The light outdoors will always be much stronger than indoors and will let your body know that it’s daytime, causing it to send out wakefulness signals, and the movement will help too.
It’s really helpful to be exposed to bright light as you’re waking up to remove that groggy feeling. Assuming you’ve done your best to black out your room, you’ve got a few options. If you’ve got money to spend, you could look into timer-controlled curtains or blinds that open automatically.
Personally, I’m surprised that this is something currently only marketed toward the rich. It seems like it’ll only be a matter of time until Ikea comes out with cheap motors and timers for their blinds. But for now, unless your money is burning a hole in your pocket or you’re a DIY programmer, you might need to use a regular ol’ alarm clock, groggily open your blinds (before hitting the snooze button), and immediately go for a walk outside.
If you have a bit of money to invest into making your morning a little cheerier but don’t want to go full out with the automatic blinds (or perish the thought, you need to wake up before the sun does), the Philips Wake Up Light will gradually turn from amber to blue while getting brighter to wake you up softly. You can also buy timers that you can plug an ordinary lamp into.
If you have a little bit of money to invest into making your morning a little cheerier, but don’t want to go full out with the automatic blinds (or perish the thought, you need to wake up before the sun does), the Philips Wake Up Light will gradually turn from amber to blue while getting brighter to wake you up softly. You can also buy timers that you can plug an ordinary lamp into.
Energy-Boost #2: Nutrition
You’ve probably already heard that drinking enough water will help you feel your best. This is true (study). Dehydration makes you feel worse in pretty much every way. It negatively affects your: energy, concentration, alertness, mood, memory, endurance, and more (study, study, study, study, study). And even with as little as 2% dehydration, your peak physical performance will suffer (study).
This makes “drink more water” one of the most popular feel-good tips out there. But what you might not have heard is that thirst is actually a very good indicator of whether you need more fluid or not (study). If you aren’t a desert triathlete* and you aren’t thirsty, you probably don’t need to worry about your water intake at all!
For curiosity’s sake though, how much water is “enough” water? That depends. Our kidneys are amazing at regulating our level of water use to match our typical intake, so your usual amount is usually enough. If you want to double check though, for optimum health and performance you should be aiming to pee clear by lunch, and then keep it clear for most of the day afterwards. If you’re having 4-5 clear urinations per day, you’re fine.
It’s also important to note that we can get water from many sources: fruits, soups, teas, juices—you get the idea. Just learn to listen to your body, and have some fluids on hand for when it beckons.
*The weird thing with hydration is that when we’re exercising, the air is hot and dry, or we’re sweating a lot… thirst as a guide might be a little slow (study). As a teenager I got heat exhaustion due to dehydration while haying in 35 C weather (it’s not as fun as it sounds). Drinking more water didn’t occur to me because I wasn’t even all that thirsty. This is a common issue among younger people, those in desert-y climates, endurance athletes, and city folks optimistically trying to lend a hand at their Uncle-and-Aunt’s farm.
Start The Day With Protein & Carbohydrates.
When breaking your fast, you’ll want to eat some protein and fibrous carbs (study). There’s research showing that those who eat a protein-rich or a balanced meal in the morning have the best attention, memory, judgement and energy (study, study).
By eating a good amount of protein (say 30g) in the morning, you’ll feel more satisfied after breakfast and stay that way for longer (study, study, study, study), helping you get to work without being bothered by hunger. This is also the optimum amount of protein to kickstart muscle protein synthesis, helping you stay lean, healthy and build muscle.
There’s also research showing that meals with carbs that are high in fibre result in more energy and alertness than lower fibre or fattier breakfasts.
So starting the day with eggs and fruit (lots of protein, lots of fibre, moderate fat) might be better than starting the day with eggs and bacon (lots of protein, tons of fat). Perhaps better still, this research could be used to suggest starting the day with something like a protein and fruit smoothie. It’s quick and easy to make, easy on the appetite (appetite tends to be low when first waking) while not leaving you hungry, it’s full of fluid to help with hydration, and the protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals will be great for your longterm health, body composition and energy.
Eat Enough—But Not Too Many—Calories
Going lower calorie can temporarily spike stress hormones causing higher energy levels, which is why detoxes and diets all result in temporarily increased energy (and stress/euphoria/etc). Overeating can sap energy as well… because our energy goes towards digesting food.
How much is the right amount? As with thirst, in the context of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, hunger is often a good indicator of how much you need to eat to stay the same weight. So if you want to build muscle, you’ll need to eat a little more than that, or choose foods that aren’t as filling. We’ve got tips for making that easier here.
Eat Enough Micronutrients
Macronutrients are protein, fat, carbs and alcohol. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals (and we like to include fibre here too). An overview of all the micronutrients you need and what they do in your body could be its own article… or book… or book series… or even one of those encyclopaedia sets that fills up an entire bookshelf. They each serve their own role in the body, and if a deficiency is present your body won’t operate as it’s supposed to, and in the short-term you won’t feel as good as you could.
There are a few micronutrients that often affect our energy levels and mood though. For example, magnesium deficiencies are relatively common, and are known to cause anxiety and depression. This makes it important to eat foods that are rich in magnesium, like bananas, leafy green vegetables, seeds, nuts, and dark chocolate
This doesn’t need to be that complicated though. Getting your macronutrients right is about eating the right amount of food, getting your micronutrients right is about eating the right types of food. Eating the “right” type of food usually just means eating a mixture of minimally processed foods, mostly plants, that you aren’t allergic or opposed to. If you eat these foods in the right amount, i.e., enough to maintain a healthy bodyweight, then you’re eating pretty optimally. Problems usually come up when you eat a very processed, restricted or lower calorie diet.
The more processing your food goes through, the more vitamins and fibre you lose. The more restrictive your diet is, the fewer foods you eat, limiting the variety of vitamins, minerals and fibre that you’re getting. So if you’re dieting, eating “clean”, a vegetarian, vegan, eating paleo, etc., you need to be especially aware of what nutrients you’ll be missing out on so you can make up for them in other ways. For example, those eating a plant-based diet may want to check with their doctor about supplementing with iodine, vitamin D, vitamin B12 (study, study, study) and creatine (study).
Should You Use Caffeine?
Everybody’s favourite drug! And with good reason—caffeine heightens your arousal and makes it easier to complete tasks (study). The arousal effects lasted about 30 minutes 25 minutes after ingestion (study). It reduces reaction time (study) and reduces fatigue and increases alertness (study).
In fact, regular drinkers were found to have better mental functioning and most people were pretty good at controlling their intake normally (study).
But not everybody metabolizes caffeine well. If you feel it doesn’t agree with you, there is no need to use it. It can increase anxiety, panic attacks, and create a caffeine dependence. If caffeine does agree with you, it’s best to get it from a more natural source like coffee or tea rather than an energy drink. Aside from being warm and delicious and delivering your caffeine, coffee and tea both include super healthy micronutrients.
Lastly, we don’t want caffeine to interfere with your sleep, which should get priority when it comes to feeling energized. We also don’t want to need to use caffeine in the morning to wake up from a lack of sleep. This study found that taking 400mg of caffeine 6 hours prior to bedtime was still soon enough to disrupt your sleep by at least one hour. And you can’t trust yourself—the participants didn’t think the caffeine was even affecting them! Being able to fall asleep well is only one part of sleeping well overall so keep caffeine well away from your bed time.
Can herbal tea improve your sleep?
Many cultures drink potions before bed that are said to improve sleep. Of these, one seems particularly effective: chamomile tea. Traditionally it’s been used as a sedative to improve sleep, and recently two double-blinded studies have shown that having chamomile tea before bed improves sleep, reduces anxiety (in people who struggle with poor sleep and high anxiety) and seems to improve a few different health markers. Research still hasn’t pinpointed why it had these effects, but it seems like there’s something to it (study).
Don’t Fall for “Detoxing” for Energy
A common claim by “detoxers” is that detoxing will improve your energy levels. Our body already has a detoxification system. While it doesn’t have sexy marketing, your liver, skin, kidneys, and lymphatic and gastrointestinal systems are incredible at detoxifying your body.
If you want to get really nitpicky, since (fat soluble) toxins are stored in fat deposits, fat loss can also be a form of detox, although this releases the toxins into your bloodstream to be disposed of by your natural detoxification system… so that actually increases the amount of toxins you’re exposed to in the very short term.
It’s great to eat more kale and leafy greens but radically altering your diet to restrict certain foods, doing risky practices, or going on extreme calorie restriction are not healthy actions. While we don’t have space to full discuss this point, if you’re not yet convinced, check out this great detox (debunking) article by Science Based Medicine.
Energy-Boost #3: Exercise
Use Exercise to Bring Your Energy to a New Level
Exercising can boost you energy by up to 20% while reducing fatigue by 65% (study, article). On top of that, it has a ton of complementary mental health benefits. Exercise will also improve your sleep, ignite your libido, build your stamina to last throughout the entire day, and increase your mental alertness (article, study).
Researchers found depressed mood symptoms and fatigue are commonly seen in people who didn’t get to do their usual exercise routine. They think this could be a contributing reason to why people become so bummed after an injury or a surgery—because they can’t exercise their body the same way (study).
We know it’s easy to skip gym day, especially during busy times—the holidays, crunch-time at work, exams. Skipping the gym will save you an hour or two that day, but at the expense of far more future energy. Much like “gaining” an extra hour by staying up past your bed time, you’ll need to pay it back with interest soon.
Don’t overreach when you need energy & focus
Overreaching is a technique where you push your body a little too hard, preventing full short-term recovery. This is useful when trying to promote muscular or endurance adaptations, since it forces your body to adapt. However, because your body will be spending its finite resources adapting, your energy levels overall will be a little lower.
It’s also entirely unsustainable in the longer term.
Researchers took well-trained men around 25 years old, doubled the amount of weightlifting they were doing, and told them to lift a little harder while they were at it. Their moods became worse and their reaction times slowed significantly, leading the researchers to suggest that overreaching could affect the speed of information processing in the brain (study).
This might sound like an extreme example—asking weightlifters to double their training volume—but many people will intentionally do intense bootcamps or take a “no pain, no gain” approach to exercise. The goal of these workouts is to use all of the trainee’s energy to willingly beat themselves to a pulp. At first their motivation is able to sustain them, but eventually their willpower will deplete and they’ll be forced to listen to their body’s urges to calm down (oftentimes causing them to get sick or quit the program). This cycle of high motivation => intense training => burnout can be a real energy suck… without really accomplishing anything.
Week 1: Deload week. Recovery is emphasized, allowing your body to adapt from intense stressors. We still lift, but the workouts are short and we leave the gym feeling hungry and pumped. This is comparable to how a fit person would feel after coming back from a short jog, or after a friendly game of soccer.
Weeks 2-4: Training. You train within your means, stimulating gradual adaptations. We leave the gym feeling like we got a good workout in. If you do one of these workouts in the morning you should have most of your energy left for work, and if you do it at night you should fall asleep easily and sleep deeply.
Week 5: Overreaching. You train harder, you feel pretty worked, but are stimulating intense adaptations. We know a recovery/adaptation week is right around the corner.
Then back to deload week to recover from the overreaching week.
You can then adjust this system to fit your schedule. You can gear into a deload week when you’ve got big exams or an important meeting coming up, boosting your energy. When you’ve conquered that intense period, you gear into your regular training routine. And occasionally you prioritize your health and fitness goals, investing your energy in your training to bring you to new levels.
Training this way isn’t just a good lifestyle trick, it’s also the fastest way to get results. Building up a healthy, vibrant body is all about perfectly balancing recovery with stimulation, rest with activity. By training strategically you can gradually build up more fitness, strength, willpower and energy in the longer term, which is one of the best ways to become a “naturally” energetic and positive person.
Bonus Supermarket Magazine-Worthy Energy Tips
Tired at your desk job? Schedule breaks. In the old days, you’d get physically tired from doing a manual labour task and need to take a break. When we’re doing desk work things are different. We don’t get a physical cue, like falling over, when our brain can’t focus anymore. The tiredness “cue” tends to be procrastinating, feeling an urge to check your phone/social media, repeatedly checking your email, etc. When this happens you need some rest, and it’s usually better to go take a real break. In 10–15 minutes, after standing up and taking a stroll, drinking some water and a having a small snack, you can get back to it with a fresh start.
Use bright lights—works even better than caffeine! For an extra boost, set up next to a window or use a very bright light, like the Philips GoLite, to stay alert (study). A dose of bright blue light beats out caffeine for boosting alertness and cognitive function! (study)
Be productive, not efficient. Many people feel like they never have enough time to complete their to-do list. This might not be because of a lack of energy, but because completing your to-do list would take more time than you realistically have. Our time is our most precious resource. It is truly finite. And it’s naive to think that all of our time in a given block can be spent productively because our willpower is even more finite. Our willpower allows us to tackle challenges that may be good for us but are difficult to do. We need to spend it wisely, not let it drizzle away by flicking through emails or doing unimportant tasks that make us feel like we’re working.
Many successful people recommend making a must-do-list / might-do-tomorrow-list before bed (link). That way you can plan and execute the important things the next day, rather than just reacting to what seems urgent. You might be very efficient at tackling all the unimportant tasks that land in your inbox, but being productive means knowing what you must do to succeed and prioritizing those things above the less important distractions.
Otherwise you may wind up being very efficient at doing things that get you nowhere.
Avoid long commutes. I know this is something you can’t easily switch but it’s worth thinking about. Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist at Duke University / MIT, writes that we can get used to anything. We can even get used to chronically negative situations, adjusting our baseline so that they feel “normal”. But we can’t do the same thing with driving in traffic—because traffic is never the same. We can’t adjust to it because it’s just a tiny bit different every day. That anxious, hurried and frustrated worry about showing up late for work as you inch slowly along the highway doesn’t get better with time. Nor does the feeling of being 100% drained before the hour long drive home. Dan wrote that people are often happier with smaller places with a shorter commute because it doesn’t wear down their daily energy before and after work.
Make fewer decisions, build more habits. Willpower is like a battery that drains over the day that is fully recharged by getting a good night’s sleep. Making a decision, any decision—even a little tiny one like what to eat for breakfast—drains your willpower. Your brain uses your willpower battery to process these decisions.
Habits are a way for our bodies to automate our decisions so that they no longer use precious our willpower. In the book Willpower, the authors discuss research that found that the most successful people, had more willpower overall… but didn’t even seem to use much of it. They found that these people would use their willpower in short sprints to consciously turn desired behaviours into unconscious new habits. Once those behaviours become habits, their willpower is freed up again. They would be full of energy and instinctively doing all the important things they want to: eating healthy meals every night, hitting the gym consistently, getting a good night’s sleep, etc.
For example, right now it might take you a bunch of willpower to start lifting weights three times per week. If you do it for a couple months (with an appropriate training workload), your body will automate this process. It will become a habit. At that point it will no longer use willpower, and you can use that willpower to develop a new healthy or productive habit—perhaps eating super well.
Over time these healthy behaviours will all be automated, no longer requiring any willpower to execute. Because these habits have longer term energy boosting effects, they will also give you more willpower overall. This will lead to a higher energy lifestyle.
This is the secret to becoming a person who’s “naturally” vibrant and full of energy.
- Focus on the most effective and longterm ways to improve your energy. This means forgetting about fads or short-term fixes and going back to the fundamentals: sleeping, eating, and exercising well.
- Sleep. To wake up energized, get lots of bright blue light exposure (like sunlight) early in the day and start moving. To gear down for sleep, in the evening use dim and amber/yellow coloured lights, turn the temperature down, and do calmer activities that relax you. Carve out time to sleep long enough in a dark room.
- Eat. Indiscriminately eat whole foods—reckless amounts of fibrous carbs (fruits and veggies), enough protein to support your physical activity and body composition goals, enough overall food to avoid hunger, not so much food in a meal that you feel sluggish afterwards, and enough fluids to avoid thirst. Keep caffeine to the morning. If you want a hot drink at night, try a herbal tea instead, like chamomile.
- Exercise. Lift heavy things, get your heart rate up. Don’t do so much that you can’t fully recover, don’t do so little that you fail to promote any adaptations (assuming you want adaptations—a “fit” person simply needs to maintain their fitness for optimal health/energy, after all). By balancing training stress and recovery you’ll become stronger and fitter over time. Finding this balance is tough, so it’s helpful to follow a good program at first.
- Switch one thing at a time. This will allow you to gradually turn these practices into a lifestyle made of habits that you love and can keep up without even thinking about it.