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January 2, 2024 | 8 minute read

Too tired for physical activity? Here are the top 12 ways to get more energy

Key Takeaways

  • If you feel too tired to get enough physical activity, there are some lifestyle changes that can help restore your energy levels.
  • Proper nutrition plays a role in providing the energy for exercise, plus it supports overall health and lowers cancer risk.
  • Your mindset often poses an even greater barrier to exercise than physical limitations, but you can change your mindset with tips that help you take steps forward.

Physical activity is recommended for cancer prevention, but sometimes it is hard to add it in to your busy life. And other times, you may just be too tired, drained or unmotivated to be active. The good news? You can take control by making choices that boost your energy level and shape a mindset to help you overcome barriers to exercise. Here are 12 tips to try.

Add flexibility to how you meet your goal.

Research suggests that when exercise is a routine part of your day, it’s easier to stick with the habit. However, being too rigid can make it harder to stick with the plan, especially when you’re low on energy. What can you do instead? Have a plan for when you want to be physically active, and then have a “plan B” to save the day.

Many things can mess with the timeslot you’ve designated for a walk, strength-training or yoga class. Already having an alternative in mind makes it easier to avoid getting derailed.

Remember, any movement is better than none. Your plan B may be to shorten the time, reduce the intensity or slow your pace. Physical activity has benefits even in short blocks. It may be easier to exercise for 10 minutes instead of 30 minutes. That’s okay! Turn on your favorite music and dance for a couple of songs or walk around the block or up and down the stairs a few times.

If you’re recovering after a cancer diagnosis, make sure to have back-up plans for days that may be particularly challenging.

Get the restorative sleep you need.

When you’re short on sleep or don’t sleep well, you may lack energy to exercise. Studies suggest that the sleep-exercise relationship goes in both directions. Physical activity makes it easier to sleep and improves sleep quality.

Try making a sleep routine. Aim for a consistent bedtime and set a timer to start winding down 30 minutes ahead. Experiment with different relaxing activities like reading, listening to music, practicing slow yoga, stretching or sipping a warm caffeine-free beverage. Taking a hot bath or shower can also help you relax, and the drop in body temperature that follows can increase readiness to sleep.

Watch out for sleep disruptors.

It’s hard to have enough energy for exercise when you had trouble sleeping the night before. One solution for sleep problems is to cut off caffeine intake eight hours before your usual bedtime. Caffeine in coffee, black or green tea, cola and energy drinks is a stimulant that can take eight hours or more to wear off. Many people find “no caffeine after 2 pm” is a sensible rule to follow.

Alcohol can also disrupt sleep. Although an alcohol-containing “nightcap” before sleep may help you relax, studies show that it can interrupt sleep quality and reduce the restorative stages of sleep.

Take a nap.

A lunchtime or early afternoon nap for 15 to 30 minutes can provide a valuable energy boost for some people. But set an alarm, since napping for too long can make it harder to fall asleep at night.

Try to set your nap before 3 pm. Napping later than this tends to make it harder to fall asleep later on. Even if you don’t sleep, a short meditation break can provide similar energy restoration. And a bonus: Naps help you get the rest you need to ensure the body ably repairs and rebuilds muscle.

Stay hydrated.

Being even a little under-hydrated can increase feelings of fatigue and make tasks seem more difficult. Start the day with a glass of water and carry a water bottle with you so you sip all day long. You can also enjoy non-caffeinated drinks in the afternoon and evening, such as unsweetened sparkling water and herbal tea.

There’s also plenty of fluid in vegetables and fruits – they are between 79 to 97 percent water! Plus, they add essential vitamins, minerals and fiber to your day.

Get enough calories.

You need to provide your body with food as fuel to feed your physical activity. When your calorie consumption is too low, energy levels fall short. It’s important to find the right calorie level to manage weight while still providing enough energy for workouts. A dietitian can help you find the balance you need.

To cut back on unneeded calories without going hungry or under-fueled, shift a few low-nutrient foods or drinks you consume from frequent to occasional choices. By cutting out about 300 calories a day and adding a bit more physical activity you can likely stop a weight gain trend or gradually drop excess body fat. A great starting point: cut back on sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets.

Design meals using AICR’s New American Plate. If you need a guide to do this one step at a time, try AICR’s free Healthy10 Challenge.

Maintain muscle with exercise and healthy eating.

Adults gradually lose muscle over time unless they create a lifestyle with frequent physical activity and a diet with enough calories, protein and other nutrients. As muscle drops, exercise that was once easy becomes harder. That may drop your motivation to keep going.

Good news: muscle lost during lack of use or health challenges can be rebuilt. Older adults and people with (or recovering from) cancer need a bit more protein than other people. But that doesn’t require big portions of meat. You can get protein from chicken, fish, eggs, dairy food, beans, soy, nuts and seeds. Check here for ideas on how to get enough protein.

Refuel with purpose.

When you are very physically active, your body uses up proteins (stored in muscle) and carbs (stored as glycogen), and these need to be replaced.

Try to have a small meal or snack within two hours of significant exercise. It should contain some grains to replenish carbohydrates and some protein to support muscle tissue. You don’t need any special food or supplements – even a sandwich is a great post-workout meal.

Drinking water also helps your body recover more quickly and reduce fatigue.

Make healthy eating fit in your lifestyle.

If you’re short on time or energy for preparing meals, that doesn’t mean you need to settle for quick snacks and fast food that leave you feeling too wiped out to exercise. Instead, build a list of nourishing meals you can pull together quickly.

Choose convenience foods that save time without shortchanging nutrients. For example, keep a supply of frozen or canned vegetables (ideally without added salt) that saves chopping time. Canned dry beans, lentils and seafood are time-savers, too.

Before you start cooking, decide if it is a dish you can freeze for later. If so, make a double amount to have in a few days or freeze for later use. Cook extra amounts of whole grains or poultry to use in another dish this week or freeze for another time. If you’re still rebuilding energy, batch prep meal ingredients or cook meals at the time of day when you have the most energy.

Focus on moving forward – not perfection.

When it comes to changing habits, your mindset often poses a more powerful barrier than physical limitations. A few mindset hacks can help you find ways to take some steps forward even amidst challenges. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking it needs to be done perfectly. But that mindset can be what keeps you from moving forward.

Find one task in your day where “good enough” creates time to work out. When you tell yourself that you’re too busy to exercise, get enough sleep, or put together a healthy meal, find one thing in your day you can do in 15 fewer minutes.

Putting off physical activity means missing an opportunity to re-energize your body and mind. Any movement is better than none.

Flag your to-do list for what’s most important.

You can easily spend all day dealing with things that seem pressing but run out of energy for doing what matters most. It’s easy to overlook the difference that sleep, physical activity, healthy eating and stress reduction can make in giving you the energy you need to achieve your goals.

Without a solid foundation, your efforts toward what’s important to you can feel like building on sand. Instead, name your “Big Three” each day. Prepare for the day in advance by naming the three most important tasks for the day. Midday, stop and check to see how you may need to adjust your to-do list to be able to move forward on top priorities – including a workout.

Notice the immediate pay-off.

Physical activity, nourishing food and good quality sleep all pay off in health benefits. But it’s human nature to be more motivated to do things that pay off right away.

Switch from “I should” to “I feel better when” talk. Mood and energy improve with even a brief walk, a bit more sleep, or a small shift to less sweets and more food that sustains energy and satisfaction. Rather than relying on guilt or willpower for these choices, remind yourself of how much better a savvy choice can leave you feeling today.

The closer you come to meeting recommendations for a healthy lifestyle, the more your health is likely to benefit. But studies consistently show that even partly meeting evidence-based advice like that of the AICR Cancer Prevention Recommendations is linked with lower cancer risk and better health.

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