This-really-works strategies to shake off that tired feeling for good

By Sara Gaynes Levy
January 18, 2019
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Ah, the vicious cycle of feeling low on energy: You don’t sleep enough, so you wake up crabby and fatigued, with no desire to eat well or exercise. By 4 p.m., you’re so sapped that you can barely function. “All these elements are totally intertwined” when it comes to energy, says Josiane Broussard, PhD, an assistant professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “You’re less likely to power through your tiredness to go to the gym and make better food choices and then get better sleep.” So before you know it, the whole cycle starts again.

It’s happened to nearly all of us, and it is not fun. But it is fixable—you just have to know where to start. The best way to feel powered up and alert all day long, experts say, is to use the three building blocks of energy: Start by focusing on your sleep, then examine your food choices, and finally work on including some exercise in your day. You’ll be bounding through the afternoon in no time.

Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

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First, We Sleep

There’s no shortcut for this one. “Quantity and quality of sleep is one of the best predictors of energy,” says James Maas, PhD, a sleep consultant and the author of Sleep for Success! Everything You Must Know About Sleep but Are Too Tired to Ask ($16; amazon.com). And sadly, many of us are skimping on this crucial energy resource. “We treat sleep as a luxury, and it is anything but,” says Maas. “I’d estimate that most Americans get an hour less than they need to have the energy they require.” Give yourself permission to put sleep on top of your to-do list. “If you have to choose between sleep and something else [like fitting in a workout], lead with sleep,” says Broussard. “If you’re too tired to exercise, you might not get a great workout. If you’re tired, you might also be eating crappy food.” And all of that drags you back down. Good rest, on the other hand, helps set you up for success. To work more sleep into your schedule, start small: Try moving your bedtime up by 15 minutes each night, suggests Maas, until you make it through the whole day without feeling that telltale drag. Another way to find your body’s ideal schedule is to try this the next time you’re on vacation: On the third or fourth night, when you’re starting to feel relaxed and you’ve made up any sleep debt you might have gone into the trip with, go to bed whenever you feel tired. Wake up without an alarm. “That’s your true sleep need,” says Broussard. “For most people it’s a lot more than they think. Even though you might think you’re doing OK, there’s some impairment that you’re not able to see.”

Once you’ve figured out the amount of sleep you need, you can work on the quality of your rest. Do your best to go to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning—yes, even on the weekends. If you have a random schedule, “your body never knows when to shut down,” says Maas. “You’ll feel jet-lagged without leaving home.” And check your sleep environment: Make your room as dark as possible, keep the temperature cool (shoot for 65 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit), and invest in bedding you love—you really want to be comfortable. “Even if you have a $50,000 mattress, if you have a not-great pillow, you can get a bad night’s sleep,” says Maas. Also, you already know this, but it’s a hard habit to break: Avoid screen time in the hour before bed.

Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

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Next, Tweak the Diet

Whether or not you’re sleeping enough, food is a crucial part of the energy equation. If you’re sleep-deprived, your body will often crave foods that offer quick energy (translation: sugar) to make up for it. But even if you’re sleeping just fine, you could feel low energy because you aren’t eating frequently enough, explains Marjorie Nolan Cohn, a registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Her recommendation is to go no longer than four hours between meals. “So if lunch is at noon and dinner is at eight, you need a mini meal in between.”

That said, try not to eat too late at night. “From what we know, eating at night can negatively affect your metabolism, leading to higher glucose and lipid levels, both of which are risk factors for diabetes,” says Broussard. We also get better rest if we don’t go to bed on a full stomach, so try to have dinner as early as you can, shooting for your last meal of the day to wrap up at least two hours before you go to sleep.

Each time you eat—even the mini meals!—have a mix of protein, fat, and carbs to help prevent your blood sugar from spiking and then plummeting. In other words, an apple is great, but it’s not enough. Have it with nut butter or cottage cheese, and you’ll feel much better for much longer.

Food choices can also be used to boost your energy over time (not just immediately after you eat), explains Cohn. Anything high in antioxidants, like berries and pomegranates, can build long-term wellness by working to neutralize free radicals in your body. “Free radicals are a stressor to the body, and over time that stress can build up, compromise the immune system, and have a systemic effect on how you feel,” she says. When it comes to beverages, there’s great news: Caffeine is not evil. Coffee is definitely OK—in fact, if you have a cup 20 to 30 minutes before an important task or meeting, the alertness can help you collaborate better and produce more focused work, research has shown. “We found people are more focused in their discussion of a target topic after consuming coffee,” says Vasu Unnava, PhD, an adjunct assistant professor at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis, who recently studied coffee’s effects on teamwork. (Just try to keep that meeting before 2 p.m., since consuming caffeine in the afternoon can negatively impact sleep, says Maas.) Matcha is also growing in popularity and provides a caffeine boost that many fans say comes without a crash. “Plus, matcha has a higher antioxidant level than coffee [though both choices have them], and the energy boost is more sustaining due to the amino acid L-theanine, which can have a calming effect,” says Cohn.

Lastly, make sure that you are remembering to drink, since dehydration can be a sneaky cause of sagging energy. “The primary side effects of dehydration are fatigue, feeling foggy, sore muscles, and mild to severe cramping,” says Cohn. If you notice any of those symptoms, try grabbing a glass of water first.

Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

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When You Can, Exercise

The final piece of the energy puzzle is exercise: If you have time, getting your heart rate up is an almost guaranteed way to shake you out of a slog. “Exercise brings the hormones that are responsible for our fight-or-flight reaction to the party. They push fatigue to the side and say to your body, ‘You don’t have time to be tired right now,’” says Sabrena Jo, the director of science and research content for the American Council on Exercise. “Even if you don’t feel like it, just the act of getting started can set that reaction in motion.“ Go for a walk, do some squats in your cubicle, pop into a quick plank pose. Let go of the idea that it needs to be 30 minutes to count. Anything counts, for any amount of time, Jo says. (The American Heart Association’s guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, but don’t let that number deter you: Doing as much as you can, when you can, will still give you a benefit.) You may be thinking that exercise takes too much of that already-scarce energy, but in reality, the more often you work out, the more efficient your muscles become. “So it takes more for you to become fatigued in the first place,” says Jo. And the more endurance you have, the better equipped you are to make it through those marathon days.

Exercise can help you sleep better too: Just experiment to figure out the best timing for you. Jo says some people find that exercise at the end of the day leaves them the perfect amount of exhausted by bedtime, whereas some people feel too revved up by it and do better with an a.m. session. “Even a 10-minute walk in the morning and 10 minutes at night works. You don’t have to go to the gym or even change out of your clothes,” says Jo. You can even use movement to wind down before bed: “Lying on your back with your legs up the wall [for a few minutes] is great for calming down,” says Joanna Cohen, an instructor at Y7, a yoga studio in New York City. “Combine it with deep breathing to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and help your body prepare for sleep.” When you’re done, climb in bed and get ready to actually jump out the next morning.

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