Trade Energy Snack-Attacks for a Daily Dose of Exercise
Energy is a hot commodity today, with online ads and storefront posters for so-called energy products shouting, “Feel the rush,” “Revitalize your mind,” and “Re-think the way you re-energize.” People are reaching for these artificial jolts in record numbers, but many buzz-seekers don’t realize they have free access to a much better energy shot: exercise.
Experts across the board agree that we would be wise to trade in our lattes and high-calorie power bars for a regular lunch-hour walk, because of the many happier returns exercise provides.
One in four Americans experiences energy-sapping fatigue at any given time, according to Tim Puetz, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health, who has published studies on the exerciseenergy link. Although it’s a difficult response to measure, more than a dozen studies from institutions such as Duke University and The University of North Carolina have shown that regular physical activity can reduce fatigue by about 40 percent, says Puetz.
“If exercise were a pill, it would be like the magic pill of all time,” remarks James Hill, Ph.D., executive director of the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. Research suggests that exercise enhances nearly every system in the body, he says. “But you have to walk on that treadmill; you can’t just sit on it.”
Exercise burns calories, while energy drinks and snacks add them. Plus, unlike caffeine and other stimulants, exercise improves sleep (as long as it’s not too close to bedtime), points out Patrick O’Connor, Ph.D., co-director of the Exercise Psychology Laboratory at the University of Georgia, and Puetz’s research partner. Periodic exercise can prevent people, often fatigued because of insufficient sleep, from falling into a vicious cycle.
“When I roll out of bed in the morning, I’m not reaching for a cup of coffee,” Puetz says. “I’m reaching for my sneakers. I do a morning run every day and the days I don’t get it in, I can feel the difference.”
A workout can boost mood, relieve stress, improve cognitive function and generate new connections in the brain, all promoting a sense of energy, Hill notes. Researchers believe that changes in the brain are the most likely reason for the exercise-energy link, according to O’Connor.
A recent groundbreaking study led by J. Mark Davis, Ph.D., director of the Exercise Biochemistry Laboratory at the University of South Carolina, found that mice that exercised one hour a day for eight weeks, versus mice that lounged nearby, developed new brain mitochondria, considered the energy powerhouses of the cells (Journal of Applied Physiology). Researchers knew from human studies that exercise can boost these mitochondria in the muscles, but the brain connection had never been shown. Davis speculates the increase could play a role in boosting exercise endurance by making the brain more resistant to fatigue, plus help individuals feel more energetic.
Just getting the blood pumping with a cardio blast can make people feel more energized, Hill contends, because blood supplies oxygen and nutrients that generate fuel for the body. Regardless of the energy connection, researchers note that exercise improves overall health, maintains healthy weight and reduces risk of disease, making it an obvious choice as a double-duty energy boost.
“What so many of us do is grasp at things and try to make ourselves feel better in the short-term,” Hill says. “Regular exercise can make us feel better in the long term.”
“You don’t have to run a marathon,” Puetz adds. In fact, it’s best not to overdo it, Puetz and O’Connor counsel. High-intensity workouts can drain energy in the short-term, and serious athletes that over-train can even end up in a low-energy, depressed state, they say. Their study published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics looked at otherwise healthy, but fatigued, people, finding that both lowand moderatelevel exercise produced a similar and significant reduction in fatigue.
O’Connor offers a general recommendation, which varies with fitness level, of walking, swimming or cycling at least 10 minutes and up to an hour most days of the week. Even taking two or three 10-minute walks throughout the workday will make an energy difference, Puetz advises.
“Anything’s better than nothing,” he concludes. “The bottom line is: If instead of reaching for that cup of coffee, you grab a pair of athletic shoes, you are not only going to experience the desired energy boost, you are going to be living a healthier lifestyle.”