How to Increase Your Energy Levels
Time to Wake Up!
Even if you’re a morning person, you’re probably far from firing on all cylinders when you first open your eyes. “It can take up to two hours to get the brain fully alert,” says Matthew Edlund, M.D., the director of the Gulf Coast Sleep Institute, in Sarasota, Florida, and the author of The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough ($26, amazon.com). One reason you’re lethargic is that your core body temperature has dipped during the night to keep you in deep, restorative slumber. Try these morning energy strategies to get going with a lot less grief.
Let in the sun and stretch. Exposure to light stimulates your brain to stop producing melatonin (the hormone that helps induce sleepiness), says Edlund. Light also gets your body out of sleep mode by resetting the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus (a big name for a region about the size of a grain of rice), which controls the body’s circadian rhythms (or 24-hour biological clock). Meanwhile, Edlund says, “the first physical activity of the day raises the body temperature and increases blood flow to your brain.” Open the blinds, then try some stretches in front of the window. (If neighbors live in close range, make sure your pj’s are presentable.)
Get moving. A morning workout triggers feel-good endorphins and lowers elevated stress hormones. The effects can last six to eight hours, says Gregory Florez, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, in Salt Lake City: “Morning exercisers tend not to have midmorning slumps and are sharper mentally than if they hadn’t exercised.” You’ll get the most bang for your energy buck, he says, with a workout that includes both cardio and strength training.
Look at something you love. Mornings are especially hard because we’re in survival mode, says Jim Loehr, Ed.D., a cofounder of the Human Performance Institute, in Orlando, Florida. We have to meet basic needs, like hunger and thirst, and to the body that feels as if we’re under threat, which saps our energy. Positive emotions, like hope and gratitude, fight that energy drain by counteracting the primal messages that we’re in some kind of danger. Loehr suggests kick-starting those positive emotions by looking at something meaningful: Next to your bed, place a treasured photo, flowers, or anything else you're grateful to see.
Shake up your routine. The brain responds to novel experiences by releasing a rush of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, which make you more alert. No need for a morning cliff dive—just take something ordinary and switch it up: If you’re right-handed, use your left hand to brush your teeth.
Time to Wake Up!
Scent your shower. Pick products with citrus, eucalyptus, or mint. “When you smell these scents, a surge of energy flows through the body, which clears the mind of clutter and gives you a quick lift,” says Ann Marie Chiasson, a Tucson-based integrative-medicine physician. (During med-school exam season, Chiasson would put a few drops of peppermint oil on a Kleenex to sniff for an energy boost.)
Edit your closet. If you think just picking an outfit is exhausting, there’s now research to confirm it: In a 2008 study led by the University of Minnesota, students faced with multiple choices had less physical stamina and were more likely to procrastinate. When it comes to choosing what to wear (not to mention making other life decisions), try to limit yourself to fewer than 10 options, says Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. (See Define Your Signature Style to learn how to put together a can’t-fail closet.)
Eat a colorful breakfast. If it takes all your mental firepower just to get the coffee going, then you’re probably in no shape to recall the optimal nutritional breakdown for your morning meal. Kim Walls, a clinical nutritionist in Los Angeles, suggests this easy-to-remember “color code”: Pile your plate with 80 percent colorful, unprocessed foods. The rest of the dish should contain a combination of lean protein and complex, fiber-rich carbohydrates, which are slowly digested and keep the blood sugar steady. There’s a colorful (and energizing) dish for every breakfast personality.
If you’re a sweets person:
- Whole-grain French toast (the egg is the protein) with strawberries and maple syrup (limit it to 1 tablespoon).
- A smoothie with blueberries, orange juice, and a scoop of protein powder.
If you’re a savory person:
- Whole-grain tortillas with scrambled eggs or black beans, sliced avocado, sliced tomato, salsa, and fresh cilantro.
- Sliced turkey breast on whole-wheat toast with lettuce, cucumber, and olive-oil mayonnaise.
If you’re not a breakfast person:
- A banana and some raw almonds (about 22).
- A bottle of drinkable fruit yogurt or kefir. Add 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed for a fiber boost.
Take your vitamins. They’re not magic energy pills, but “a lack of vitamins can cause fatigue—especially B vitamins, which convert energy from food into energy your body can use,” says Sara Ryba Matty, a registered dietitian in Scarsdale, New York. If you’re not getting enough nutrient power in your diet, a multivitamin pill could help. Be sure to take it with a meal, says Matty: “Food in the stomach triggers digestive juices that will help break down the vitamins."
The Day Officially Starts
With the early-morning hustle over, you feel more on top of things. As the day unfolds, your body temperature and levels of the alertness-boosting hormone cortisol continue to rise. These are the magic hours: Most people over 30 are likely to be productive and sharp between 9 a.m. and noon, says Lynn Hasher, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
Take advantage of your mental acuity with productivity “sprints.” Loehr has clients take a break every hour and a half. “Changing channels physically, emotionally, or mentally every 90 minutes pays extraordinary dividends in terms of productivity, well-being, and energy,” he says.
Cut the office chat. This is prime time for knocking out your to-do list, so don’t get stuck with Chatty Cathy at the office or PTA Pam at the bus stop. If you’re faced with an unwanted conversationalist, Robin Abrahams, an etiquette columnist for the Boston Globe, suggests saying something like “I’d much rather be talking to you than filling out those TPS reports/permission slips. Oops! Speaking of…I’d better go. I need to finish them by lunch.”
Drink more coffee. “Coffee has an unfairly deserved evil reputation,” says Karen Ansel, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “It’s very effective at boosting energy and concentration.” Just drink up before lunchtime, limiting the full-strength caffeine to two eight-ounce cups, max. Drinking later will yield diminishing energy returns: Coffee stays in your system for six hours, so that afternoon cup will make it harder for you to get to sleep later on.
Play (for a few minutes, anyway). Fun brain-teasers activate the reward system of the brain, which releases a surge of energizing neurotransmitters. The Cup O’ Joe brain-training app for the iPhone has memory games and reaction-time tests that are actually entertaining ($1, itunes.com).
The Day Officially Starts
Breathe. Hunching over a keyboard restricts the diaphragm and leads to shallow breathing, which means you’re getting less oxygen to the brain, so you feel less mentally alert and energetic. Take a moment to breathe deeply: Relax your shoulders, place a hand on your abdomen, and feel your belly expanding as you inhale. Then exhale completely and watch your hand go down. The more carbon dioxide you expel, the more space you’re clearing for your next inhale. Remind yourself to take a breath whenever you check your watch or the clock, suggests Margaret Chesney, Ph.D., a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco Osher Center. Ahhh. You may now resume that e-mail.
Time for lunch. As with breakfast, you’re looking for a meal that gives you ample protein, fiber, and complex carbs and is low in refined sugar and saturated fat. Keep it light, says Matty: “The process of digestion is tiring, so if you have a lot of calories at one time, your body will be working hard to digest it all, and you’ll feel sluggish.”
If you’re a sandwich person:
- Whole-grain bread with turkey or chicken, pesto, and sliced tomato.
- Whole-grain bread with hummus, spinach, and sprouts.
If you’re a soup person:
- Vegetarian or turkey chili.
- Another bean-based soup, like split pea or lentil.
If you’re a salad person:
- Spinach or arugula with salmon, avocado, basil, parsley, and ginger dressing. (Ginger is a bonus; it aids digestion, says Walls.)
- Romaine lettuce with vegetables, cannellini beans, and olives.
Find something to look forward to. At lunchtime, browse the Web for plane tickets. Or check out reviews for a movie you want to see over the weekend. Anticipating a pleasurable reward can set off a blast of energizing dopamine.
The Afternoon Slump
You need something—a candy bar, a caffeine IV, just one blessed minute to close your eyes. Hey, are you awake? “The midafternoon slump is actually a true physiological event,” says Edlund. “During this time of day, your core body temperature plateaus, which can bring on sleepiness.” And if you slept poorly the night before, you’ll probably notice a more significant slump the next day. This is also the time when your cortisol level drops, and along with it possibly your mood, energy, focus, and motivation, says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., a holistic nutritionist in Woodland Hills, California. Luckily, there are easy ways to snap out of it (that don’t involve curling up under your desk).
Boost flagging get-up-and-go with light, activity, and well-timed snacks. These all send your body cues that help set and reset your internal clock. (Experts call such cues zeitgeber, from the German word for “time giver.”)
Whip out a purse energizer. Dab on an alertness-boosting product, such as Aveeno’s Smart Essentials Anti-Fatigue Eye Treatment ($12, drugstore.com), which comes in a tiny stick with a metal ball top that can be rolled under the eyes for a magical cooling effect. Or, for an instant spa treatment, spritz on Citrus Purifying Mist from Jurlique ($21, jurlique.com).
Move (just a little). You knew it was coming: the part where you need to stand up and walk around. Stay with us—a little physical activity really does give the mind a jolt. “Movement requires a lot more alertness than sitting,” says Edlund. “You stimulate your whole brain by asking it to sort through all kinds of visual and sensory cues.” A 10-minute walk can increase your energy for up to two hours, according to research from California State University at Long Beach.
Stay awake in a deadly meeting. It’s a cruel reality that you’re often stuck at a conference table during this low period. Here’s how to maintain consciousness.
Focus: “Curiosity is known to be tremendously energizing,” says Borysenko,“so give your brain something to engage with.” Imagine that you’re listening to the most fascinating subject. Take notes. Ask questions. Presto—not only are you not asleep but you’re also the most dynamic person at the table! (Maybe you’ll get promoted and you won’t have to sit in these meetings anymore.)
Drink ice water: Cold H2O might aid in keeping you awake by setting off pain triggers, according to researchers at the University of Chicago.
Don’t stifle that yawn: Yawning may help you stay alert because it can lower brain temperature, which promotes mental efficiency, says Andrew C. Gallup, a postdoctoral research associate in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University.
The Afternoon Slump
Make tomorrow’s to-do list today. Rumination activates some parts of the prefrontal brain regions that have been associated with depression, says Boulder, Colorado–based clinical psychologist Joan Borysenko, the author of Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive ($18, amazon.com). Fretting over what you have to do tomorrow will take the enjoyment out of your evening, so make the next day’s to-do list now. Then, when your mind drifts to what you didn’t accomplish, remind yourself that you have a game plan in place.
Have a snack. The afternoon doldrums may be why the English invented teatime, says Victor Sierpina, M.D., a professor of family and integrative medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. But pass on the scones and clotted cream. As with breakfast and lunch, something packed with protein will give you sustained energy.
A few quick ideas:
- Instant oatmeal with milk
- String cheese
- Soy chips
- Carrots or pretzels and hummus
- A container of cottage cheese or yogurt with fruit preserves
- Peanuts in the shell. (Extra nutrition points because they take longer to eat, so you probably won’t scarf down so many. Also, they lower levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol.)
Commute with music. To help yourself switch gears, turn on upbeat tunes. Music promotes so-called respiratory entrainment—meaning we pace our breaths to the beat (and oxygenate the brain in the process).
Give them a high-octane hello. Even if you just want to crawl into a bubble bath, give an enthusiastic greeting and a big smile to your family when you reunite at the end of the day. “Acting ‘as if’ is a long-standing strategy for feeling better,” says Jeff Brown, a cognitive-behavioral psychologist at Harvard Medical School and a coauthor of The Winner’s Brain ($25, amazon.com). You’re sending uplifting cues to the reticular activating system of the brain, which can eventually help make you feel as energetic as you’re pretending to be.
The Evening Shift
Don’t let the dinner rush sap your joie de vivre. Keep calm and carry on, so you can have a peaceful evening that will lead to a good night’s sleep.
Exercise (if you haven’t already). An early-evening workout may help you sleep. A study from Northwestern University, in Chicago, showed that insomniacs who did about 40 minutes of moderate cardio between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. four times a week got an average of 75 more minutes of sleep a night. Choose an easy routine and finish two hours before bed, says Kori Malyszek, a coordinator for the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, in Los Angeles.
Dig in to a bowl of pasta. Complex carbs—like in risotto, pasta, or polenta—increase levels of tryptophan, which improves sleep, says Ansel. Eat at least three hours before bed so you can digest it efficiently.
Take a hot bath. When you step out of the tub, your core body temperature immediately drops, which may help you settle in for a deeper sleep, says Perlis. Lather up with bath products with a soothing scent, like lavender or chamomile.
Watch soothing television. Yes, those gripping dramas tend to come on at 10 p.m., but that’s what DVRs are for: Watch those shows early the next night and chase them with something benign. (The Golden Girls is always on somewhere.)
A truly energized, productive day is possible only after a relaxed, restorative night. “Your alertness during the day is dependent on the quality of your sleep and on getting undisturbed sleep,” says Thomas Roth, Ph.D., a psychologist and the director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Henry Ford Hospital, in Detroit. Research has shown that seven to eight hours really is the ideal. Start preparing yourself about an hour before bed, advises Michael Perlis, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “You need to allow yourself to decompress and unwind,” he says. Physically and psychologically, you’ll be better prepared for quality sleep.
Read something calming. Look for the literary equivalent of comfort food: pleasant narratives. Maureen Corrigan, a book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and the author of Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading ($15, amazon.com), recommends the anecdote-filled cookbooks of both M.F.K. Fisher and Laurie Colwin. “My idea of perfect bedtime reading is Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle, a comic novel about two sisters in an English village in the 1930s,” says Corrigan. “For the ideal Pym experience, you should be wearing flannel pj’s and have a cup of tea.”
Use an evening alarm. “Set the alarm on your watch or phone to remind you when it’s time to get ready for bed,” says Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, in Tucson, and the author of The Yoga of Sleep ($20, amazon.com). When the alarm sounds, start turning lights off around the house to let your body know it’s almost time to call it a night.
Create the best sleeping conditions. Experts say the ideal sleep environment is:
- Cool (About 65 to 70 degrees.)
- Dark (Throw a towel over the lights on your LED clock if necessary.)
- Quiet (Try a white-noise machine or ear plugs—helpful for those who sleep with a snorer.)
Learn your rhythms. We tend to assume that “early to bed, early to rise” types are more energetic and productive. Consider Ben Franklin and Keith Richards. Whom do you think of as healthier (though maybe not wealthier) and wiser? But turning yourself into a morning person doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have more energy. The most important thing is getting enough restorative rest, period, says Michael Terman, Ph.D., a clinical professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center, in New York City. (Though it is true, he says, that early birds are less likely to be affected by insomnia and depression, both of which can take the wind out of your sails.)
To find out your circadian-rhythm type—that is, whether you’re a hard-core morning person or better suited for a late bedtime—try Terman’s 19-question online quiz, the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire, at cet.org (click on Therapeutic Resources & Tools). (It’s based on a paper-and-pencil test designed 50 years ago to determine which workers would do better with morning, evening, or afternoon assignments.) You’ll get a personalized profile with a close prediction of your “natural” bedtime (the time your body tells you it’s ready to turn in). You may not be able to alter your natural circadian rhythms, but you can identify the optimal time to expose yourself to light to fight morning grogginess and make every day a little, well, brighter.