It’s 3 p.m. and you’re only halfway through your to-do list, but until you get a caffeine or sugar fix all you can think about is a nap. Tired of feeling tired? Join the club. Health experts say we’re suffering from a nationwide energy crisis sparked by lifestyles that leave us hurried, harried and running on empty. Instead of fuelling up on coffee and chocolate bars, try these healthy, energy-boosting tips.
1. Clock more z’s
It’s no surprise that energy starts with a good night’s sleep, but in today’s busy world, we’re shortchanging ourselves by about 90 minutes a night, says Dr. David Posen, a columnist for Canadian Living Magazine, author of The Little Book of Stress Relief and a stress consultant in Oakville, Ont. Adults need eight to nine hours a night to restore and regenerate their minds and bodies, while children need 10 to 12 hours, and teens nine to 10.
Energy-boosting tip: Head to bed a half-hour earlier for the next few nights, then add another half-hour for a few nights. Continue adding to your sleep until you can wake up without an alarm, feeling refreshed.
2. Get moving
When you’re too tired to even think straight, exercising is probably the last thing you want to do, but you have to spend energy to get energy, says Robert Reid, an expert in physical activity patterns and spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. The good news is that any activity that gets your heart pumping for more than 10 minutes will increase oxygen to your system and give you more get-up-and-go.
Energy-boosting tip: "Snack" on fitness throughout the day, advises Reid. A brisk 10-minute walk at lunch, 10 minutes of active play with your kids after work, 10 minutes of walking the dog after dinner – it all counts toward Health Canada’s recommended 30 to 60 minutes of activity a day. Keep at it for eight to 10 weeks and watch your energy levels soar (but don’t stop after 10 weeks).
3. Pay attention to your breathing
“We tend to take short, shallow breaths through our mouths and we hold our breath without realizing it, especially when we’re stressed,” says Angie Birt, a yoga instructor and psychology professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. If that’s your breathing pattern, you’re depriving your body of oxygen – and less oxygen means less energy.
Energy-boosting tip: Concentrate on deep breathing a few times a day. Breathe slowly and deeply in and out through your nose – both to a count of at least five. Work up to longer intervals as you go along; feel your chest rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Eventually, you’ll do this automatically throughout the day and it will make a huge difference to your state of mind and energy level.
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4. Make stress work for you
Stress has a bad rap, but a certain amount of positive stress is good for us, says Posen. The trick is to stretch ourselves a little beyond our comfort zone to find something that’s stimulating – but not too anxiety-producing.
Energy-boosting tip: Add some challenge to your life, whether it’s taking a writing or painting class, learning a new hobby or asking for more responsibility at work.
5. Don’t skip breakfast
The word breakfast literally means "to break a fast," and your body can’t shift into full gear when it hasn’t had fuel. Eating food high in fat and sugar, or skipping breakfast altogether, will leave you feeling lethargic all day, says Lois Ferguson, a registered dietitian in Mississauga, Ont., and author of Eating for Energy and Ecstasy (self-published, 2000). "A healthy breakfast containing protein and complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain toast, helps keep blood-sugar levels balanced and stabilizes energy," she says.
Energy-boosting tip: Plan ahead; cut up fruit the night before to add to cereal or a smoothie, or make a batch of bran muffins to get you through the week’s mornings.
6. Stay hydrated
Lack of fluids is a major cause of fatigue, since they transport nutrients and oxygen to our cells and organs. "Sometimes I get ‘brain foggy’ in the afternoon and realize I haven’t had any water," says Penny Ormsbee, a holistic nutritional consultant and educator at the Therapeutic Approach Health Centre in Halifax. "Water perks me up again." We need at least eight cups (two litres) of fluids per day to stay properly hydrated. Besides drinking water, you can get hydrating fluids from watery foods such as fruit and vegetables and from milk, juice and other noncaffeinated, nonalcoholic beverages.
Energy-boosting tip: Ditch sodas and coffee and keep a glass of the clear stuff handy.
7. Eat more often
Most of us know what foods we should be eating (less fatty foods and plenty of whole grains, fruit and vegetables), but it’s also important to know how to eat – that is, how to spread out healthy foods over the course of the day, says Toronto dietitian Leslie Beck, author of The No-Fail Diet (Penguin Books Canada, 2006). Eating five or six small meals throughout the day ensures that your blood-sugar levels remain steady. "My clients tell me they feel much better once they start eating healthy between-meal snacks," says Beck.
Energy-boosting tip: Aim to eat every three to four hours. Keep high-energy snacks, such as nuts or dried or fresh fruit, in your purse or at your desk so you can munch on something to prevent afternoon tiredness.
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8. Keep your iron in check
Sluggishness, especially in women, may be a sign of low iron, says Ormsbee. Women aged 19 to 49 need 18 to 30 milligrams a day of this mineral (eight milligrams after age 50), which helps the blood absorb energy-producing oxygen. If you suspect your iron level is low, have your doctor check it out. Don’t try to self-diagnose, since taking too much iron can damage your liver and intestines.
Energy-boosting tip: Iron found in red meat is the most easily absorbed by the body. Other sources include seafood, whole grains, leafy green vegetables and legumes. These are best combined with foods or drinks rich in vitamin C (salad with spinach and mandarin orange, for example, or a whole grain breakfast cereal topped with strawberries) to maximize absorption of the iron. To help you meet iron and other nutrient requirements, take a multivitamin and mineral supplement, according to the label or your doctor.
9. Strike the right nutritional balance
Combine food rich in complex carbohydrates (such as a whole grain bagel) with a protein (such as an egg) and some essential fatty acid (also found in omega-3 eggs, fish and canola oil, as well as in nuts such as walnuts). Your energy level will remain higher for longer. "Carbs are the preferred source of fuel for energizing your brain," says Ferguson, "and protein provides staying power."
Energy-boosting tip: Choose whole grain carbohydrates such as brown rice, oatmeal and whole grain pasta. Fibre helps keep digestive systems in top order, which keeps lethargy at bay.
10. Cut out caffeine
Resist the urge to grab a coffee when you need a jolt. Caffeine stimulates adrenalin release and blocks a relaxing brain chemical called adenosine, says Posen. "The net result is that it jazzes up your body and produces a stress reaction; once the initial jolt wears off you’re left feeling even more tired than before." Posen says 75 to 80 per cent of his patients say they sleep better, are calmer and more relaxed and have better energy after giving up caffeine for three weeks.
Energy-boosting tip: Wean yourself off caffeine to prevent withdrawal headaches. Cut back by one serving each day until you’re down to zero. Keep in mind that caffeine is also found in tea, cola and chocolate. Even decaffeinated coffee contains a little caffeine. If you don’t want to kick the caffeine habit altogether, limit yourself to one to two cups a day and have them before noon so the caffeine is out of your system by bedtime.
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