Are the demands of everyday activities draining you of your get-up-and-go? Take heart—a number of recent studies point the way to simple measures that can help counter a lack of energy and eliminate many of its underlying causes.
“Don’t assume that your loss of vigor is an unavoidable aspect of growing older,” says Louisa Sylvia, MD, Associate Director of Psychological Services at MGH’s Bipolar Clinic and Research Program. “There are strategies that you can use to improve your physical and mental strength.”
Although it may seem counterintuitive, mastering the art of total relaxation appears to be one highly effective way to drive up energy levels. A study of 200 female survivors of breast cancer—who are known to be physically and mentally depleted by the rigors of medical treatment—compared participants assigned to practice yoga for 12 weeks with others who went about their normal routines. The yoga participants, who engaged in two 90-minute yoga sessions each week and practiced at home as well, reported an average drop of 41 percent in fatigue, and scored 12 percent higher in measures of vitality compared to the non-yoga group, according to a report in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The researchers attributed the beneficial changes in yoga participants to the meditation and deep breathing associated with yoga.
The study supports earlier work by researchers at MGH’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. That research concerned the effects of the relaxation response (RR)—a physiologic state of profound rest induced by practices such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing that is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Published online May 2013 in the journal PLoS One, the study found that individuals who received just eight weeks of RR training experienced an up-regulation of genes involved with energy metabolism, particularly involving the functioning of the mitochondria, which serve as the energy factories of cells.
In addition to adopting a positive attitude and managing medical conditions, Dr. Sylvia advises paying attention to the basic prerequisites for healthy energy levels listed below.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO FEEL MORE ENERGETIC
- Get a good night’s rest: Insufficient sleep can result in feelings of fatigue and depleted energy. Although in some cases sleep problems may be related to disorders such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome that require medical care, they often have less serious causes that individuals can address on their own. “If you’re getting five hours of core sleep a night, you need not be overly worried,” says Dr. Sylvia. “However, you should try to work up to seven hours or more of restful sleep each night.” Possible solutions: Poor sleep may be related to a sedentary lifestyle—a common problem in many older adults—and can be addressed by increasing physical activity. Try to improve sleep hygiene through such strategies as establishing regular sleep and wake times; ensuring that your bedroom is dark, cool, and comfortable; using your bed only for sleep or sex; refraining from exercise, alcohol consumption, or caffeine within four hours of bedtime, and pursuing calming activities in the hour or so before retiring for the night.
- Reduce stress: “Repeated exposure to stress increases your allostatic load, a term that describes the physiological consequences (e.g., high blood pressure, disturbed sleep) of experiencing chronic stress,” explains Dr. Sylvia. “Your body tries to adapt to this stress by activating mechanisms that can cause wear and tear on the body and deplete energy.” Possible solutions: In addition to learning and practicing relaxation techniques, try to get regular exercise (at least 20 minutes daily, five days per week), talk over your problems with loved ones, and engage in relaxing activities, such as listening to music, or enjoying a warm bath.
- Exercise: A 2008 study published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics found that adopting a program of regular moderate exercise helped couch potatoes who complained of low energy levels achieve a 20 percent boost in energy and a 65 percent decline in feelings of fatigue. Possible solutions: If you have been inactive for a while, consult with your doctor about initiating an exercise program. Aim for regular low- to moderate-intensity workouts such as brisk walking, swimming, or yoga every day for at least 30 minutes. Avoid prolonged sitting, which is linked to worse health: Try to stand up and walk around for a few minutes every hour or so during waking hours. Stay well hydrated, and refrain from excessive exercise that can actually deplete energy.
- Eat healthy: An unhealthy diet, deficiencies of specific vitamins or minerals, or poor eating habits can deprive you of the fuel your body requires for maximum energy. Possible solutions: “Focus on consuming a balanced diet,” advises Dr. Sylvia. “Be sure to get plenty of fiber to help food through the digestive tract and eat smaller meals every three or four hours if you can to keep a steady and regular balance of sugar (e.g., not too much or too little) in your blood.” Avoid simple sugars that can lead to sugar highs followed by energy-draining sugar lows. Consider taking a vitamin and mineral supplement. Research has shown that supplements of vitamin B-12 and vitamin D can improve energy in people who are deficient in those nutrients.
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