Low energy is a common complaint among SELF readers and women in general, and it seems like our energy lags more than usual in January. Which makes sense for a number of reasons: The hectic holiday fun is over and it’s cold and gray outside, so we stay cooped up indoors, getting less exercise and likely eating more of the hearty comfort food that leaves us too full and groggy
. But if you feel like you’re dragging more than you should be and the usual pick-me-ups aren’t working—a better night’s sleep, extra cup of coffee, brisk outdoor jog (if you haven’t tried this, you should—one study at the University of Rochester found that students who spent a mere 20 minutes a day outside felt much more energetic)—there might be something else going on with your health or daily habits that deserves your attention. Pick up your pace today with these fast fixes from top experts that shift you out of slow-mo.
Energy sapper: your breakfast menu
Missing a morning meal slows metabolism and depletes your body of the fuel it needs to function optimally, explains nutrition expert Joy Bauer, R.D. But what you eat matters as much as the fact that you eat something. Bauer suggests starting each day with a breakfast that contains at least 5 grams of protein. This nutrient activates the production of norepinephrine, a neurochemical that increases heart rate and alertness. It also digests slowly so blood sugar and energy levels stay stable. Some tasty recipes: a cup of cereal (with 3 g or more of fiber, no more than 120 calories per serving) topped with skim milk, 1/2 cup of blueberries and 1 tablespoon of chopped walnuts (10 g of protein per serving), or an omelet made with 4 egg whites, 1/2 cup chopped broccoli, 1/4 cup chopped onion and 1 ounce lowfat shredded cheese (22 g of protein per serving).
Energy sapper: your outfit
Those killer heels and pencil skirts may look polished and professional, but if you’re sacrificing comfort for fashion, they can also turn you into the office sloth. Workers took an average of 491 fewer steps on days they wore more formal business attire compared with dress-down days, according to research commissioned by the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. And using less energy leads to having less energy, says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., chief science officer with ACE: “Sitting at your desk all day slows circulation, so less energizing oxygen is delivered to cells throughout your body.” Wear clothes that allow for movement and cushy footwear instead of uncomfortable heels to the office so you’ll be more likely to walk around. If you can’t part with your stilettos, keep them on at work, then slip into flats or low-heeled shoes for a lunch-break walk outdoors and your commute.
Energy sapper: your worrying
Credit card debt, a micromanaging boss—long-term stressors such as these can leave you spent. “Chronic stress increases heart rate and blood pressure, making your body work overtime,” explains Nieca Goldberg, M.D., director of the New York University Langone Medical Center Women’s Heart Program in New York City. “When you’re on edge, you also tend to tighten your muscles, which sets you up for aches and fatigue.” What’s more, worriers often take shallow breaths, so they don’t take in enough oxygen, Dr. Goldberg says. “You’re essentially hyperventilating and building up carbon dioxide in your blood, a waste product that can make you feel tired and dizzy.” When anxiety strikes, take three slow, deep breaths to give your body a big dose of energizing oxygen while slowing down a rapid heart rate. Then, as soon as you have a few minutes of downtime, do something distracting that feels good, like talking to a friend or watching a funny movie.
Energy sapper: your messy desk
Digging through piles of unorganized paperwork is a time and energy stealer in and of itself, but merely the sight of those stacks can stress you out, decrease efficiency and drain your brain, says Carol Landau, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry and medicine at Brown Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island. While a little disarray is OK, in general, your desk should hold only items that you use very frequently—your computer or stapler—and the paperwork you’re working on that day,” notes Laura Stack, author of The Exhaustion Cure (Random House). Nonessential items—a labeler and a three-hole punch—can go in a drawer. To keep your desk clear, spend five minutes at the end of each day putting documents you’re working on in a neat pile and filing away the rest.
Energy sapper: your Saturday sleep-ins
“Bingeing on sleep on weekends to catch up on missed zzz’s throws off your circadian rhythm, your body’s 24-hour clock that plays a key role in sleep and wakefulness,” says Amy Wolfson, Ph.D., author of The Woman’s Book of Sleep (New Harbinger Publications). Sleeping in—and hitting the hay that night later than usual as a result—also makes it hard to readjust to your workweek routine, so you start Mondays in a fog. Strive to get up within the same 60-minute range both days: Oversleeping by more than one hour significantly disrupts your body clock. Still wake up with a case of the groggies? Open your bedroom shades as soon as your alarm goes off. The sunlight sends a signal to your brain that it’s time to get up.
Energy sapper: your lack of vitamin C
About 30 percent of women don’t get enough vitamin C, and too-low levels can zap your energy. That’s because vitamin C helps produce carnitine, a molecule that shuttles fatty acids into cells where they’re burned for energy, says Carol Johnston, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at Arizona State University at Mesa. “Lack of carnitine forces the body to use carbs or protein for energy instead. That can cause your body to produce lactic acid, a waste product that builds up in tissue and fatigues muscles.” Aim to get the recommended daily allowance of 75 mg of C daily by noshing on naturally rich sources such as an orange or a kiwifruit (both have about 70 mg per fruit), broccoli (1 cup chopped: 74 mg) or strawberries (1 cup: 89 mg).
Energy sapper: your stuck-in-a-rut routine
Grandma was right: Variety is the spice of life. “We all crave diversity and challenge,” Steven Berglas, Ph.D and author of Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout says. “When there’s no challenge in completing a task, you go on autopilot—it’s mind-numbing.” If job monotony is dragging you down, ask your boss for more or different responsibilities, or have lunch with someone in another department to find out if her type of job is something you’d like to explore, Berglas suggests. Blasé about your daily regimen? Simple change-ups can deliver some rut-busting benefits. For instance, find an alternate route home (and stop at a park or shop that grabs your eye along the way); sign up for a language, pottery or photography class to get your brain chomping on something new; or trade the treadmill for a fun circuit training class.
Energy sapper: your sluggish thyroid
Found at the base of the throat, this gland secretes hormones that help control metabolism, heart rate and more. “The less active your thyroid is in producing hormones, the slower your metabolism and the less energy you have,” says Stephen Richardson, M.D., an endocrinologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. Other telltale signs of an underactive thyroid include constipation, menstrual irregularities and dry skin, hair and nails. A blood test can reveal whether your levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone are high—a sign that the thyroid isn’t working up to speed. If they are, your M.D. can help pinpoint and treat whatever is elevating them; a viral infection or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (an autoimmune disease) are potential culprits. If your gland can’t do its job, you may need to take a daily synthetic thyroid hormone pill. Fortunately, once those hormones are back in balance, your lethargy will disappear. In the meantime, try relaxation exercises (deep breathing or yoga). “If you have a thyroid problem, stress might add to the drain on your energy levels,” Dr. Richardson says. That’s one more good excuse to take it easy—and save your energy for something fun.