The mission of the American Council on Exercise (ACE) is to get people moving.
By Brett Klika
Early mornings, late nights, commitments, demands, responsibilities and expectations can make us feel like we're a sponge that has been squeezed dry of one of our most precious resources: energy. When we walk around feeling like this day after day, it negatively affects almost every aspect of life. From our health and careers to our relationships, when we have no more energy to give, the going gets tough.
So. when the going starts to get tough, how do we get going again?
Energy has physiological, neurological and even psychological components. It is also a carefully regulated economy within our lives. If we're constantly spending energy, we need to have some strategies to earn and replenish energy as well. All spending and no earning is a failing formula in any arena.
With a few simple daily steps in our demand-laden, busy, stressed-out life, however, we can replenish our energy bank account and actually earn more energy to spend on the things that are most important to us.
What would you do with more energy?
Here are five simple steps you can take every day to ensure that your energy economy ends up in the positive column, so you can do more of the things that feed your soul.
1. Go to bed and get up at the same times every day.
From a physiological standpoint, sleep is the ultimate energy recuperator. The relationship between going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning used to be simple—when the sun went down, the darkness would trigger the brain to release sleep hormones and neurotransmitters. When the sun came up, the light would trigger wake-up hormones and neurotransmitters.
With this natural, consistent balance of sleeping and awaking, our ancestors had the energy they needed to hunt, gather, build and do anything else they needed to do. Today, our sleep cycle is more dependent on evening television programming than the sun. Artificial light convinces our brain that it is daytime whenever we want it to be. Instead of the sun deciding when we go to sleep and wake up, we have to regulate this ourselves.
As mentioned, falling asleep and waking up are largely affected by hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. When the sun was our sleep regulator, these chemicals "learned" when to be released. With this learned consistency, we would get sleepy at bedtime and feel alert after waking up in the morning.
We no longer rely on the predictable sun, so it's up to each individual to go to bed and wake up at consistent times so the sleep and waking hormonal and neural processes learn when to do their thing. The more consistent we are, the more efficient the process works. The better we sleep, the more we recuperate our energy.
2. Move more.
Humans are perpetual motion machines. The process of getting enough of the good stuff in and the bad stuff out of our brain, muscles and other cells relies heavily on frequent movement throughout the day. Research suggests most Americans are completely sedentary for up to 15 hours per day, independent of sleep. It appears this level of inactivity may be as risky to our health as smoking cigarettes.
When you move, you aid in driving blood circulation, which gets more oxygen and glucose to the brain and energy-producing "engines" of the cells (the mitochondria). You also stimulate areas of your brain in charge of coordination, which can help keep you out of the midday fog. Go ahead and stand up right now and lift your arms above your head. Stay standing for about 10 seconds. You will notice a change in your energy even in that short amount of time.
Try to create a work/home environment where you can stand up and move frequently. Try parking farther away from destinations, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and standing up for at least a few minutes every 30 to 45 minutes.
Even something as simple as standing up can drive more oxygen and glucose to create energy, so imagine what exercise can do for your energy levels. Every day, do 20 minutes of something that elevates your heart rate—dancing, running, swimming, hiking, jogging or anything else you enjoy doing.
3. Eat smaller meals frequently.
While eating frequent small meals does not appear to play as large a role in weight loss as once believed, this simple daily habit can create a drastic change in your energy levels.
The brain uses glucose (blood sugar) as its food. When it doesn't have enough, or when there is too much, we get tired, foggy, lazy and unfocused. Think about your level of energy when you're really hungry, then consider how your energy levels are after a large meal.
Unfortunately, many American's have developed the habit of not eating breakfast and then consuming a large, high-calorie lunch, a few high-sugar, high-fat snacks, and a large dinner. With this "feast or famine" level of blood sugar supplied to the brain, it makes it difficult to create consistent energy levels.
Start each day with a balanced breakfast that includes protein, fat, carbohydrates and plenty of fruits and vegetables. About three hours later, have a small snack with a similar nutrient profile. You'll be less hungry for lunch and more apt to make better choices when you're not voraciously hungry. Another balanced snack after lunch and before dinner curbs the pre-dinner and even post-dinner snacking, while decreasing the likelihood you'll overeat at dinner.
Fruit, nuts, shakes and other snacks are easy to prepare and carry with you.
4. Stop multitasking and instead create time chunks.
The more tasks we split our energy between in a given time, the poorer our performance on each task will become. We use our energy inefficiently when we try to do many things at once, so we end up spending quite a bit of energy with a limited return on our investment.
Instead of attempting to do multiple tasks at once, create a clear time frame to focus on one thing. This could be as short as a few minutes or it could be hours. Most people will find a "sweet spot," during which they can apply maximal focus without going off course. If you have to keep up with multiple demands, you may need to create short time chunks. This way, you can use your energy effectively and efficiently on one task, do it well, then move to another task and repeat.
Many successful people have learned to use time chunks for meetings, email, projects, hobbies and other work or leisure tasks so they can get the largest return for their investments of time and energy.
5. Experience gratitude.
When we're flying through each day, trying to keep up with the constant demands being thrown at us, it's easy to slip into the "sky is falling, woe is me" mode. When we're stressed, our brains work differently. We tend to only see what's in front of us and we lose sight of the bigger picture.
While it's true that things can go very wrong, there are always things that are going very right, but this can be tough to remember when the going gets tough.
When you let your fight-or-flight brain take over for long periods, you squander your energy levels and drain them quickly. Something as simple as taking five minutes a day to write down a short (or long) list of things you are thankful for can help turn off, or at least turn down, the fight-or-flight brain. This realization that there are positive things in your life despite negative events can boost your mood, energy and even performance.
Try one or all of these simple, energy-exploding strategies every day to refill your energy tanks and live an extraordinary life.
A version of this article originally appeared at ACEFitness.com.