If you’re asking how to improve your energy levels, you’re certainly not alone. One of the most common complaints GPs in Australia hear is that their patients feel exhausted, and want to know how to boost their energy.
A wide range of factors can affect our energy levels, including:
- too much work
- not enough movement
- not enough sleep
- too much stress, anxiety or low mood
- disconnection from our families
Plus, according to GP Dr Jill Gamberg, there’s one other factor that makes us think we don’t have enough energy: social media.
Dr Jill believes that social media gives many of us the false impression that everyone else is off having a wonderful life. That, in turn, can create unrealistic expectations of being eternally energetic.
“I see patients present at least five times every day, complaining of exhaustion. But often, they’re simply putting too much pressure on themselves to feel something that's just not realistic.”
She suggests that the first step of getting on top of your energy levels is to ask yourself why you think they’re low.
Why is this important? Because before we look for a solution to a problem, we need to first establish what the problem may be. It’s all about starting by bringing mindfulness to the situation before moving to action.
How to tell if your energy levels are normal
Energy levels can vary naturally between people. Plus, each individual has times in their life when their energy is naturally higher or lower. And for the most part, Dr Jill believes that we need to change our expectations about our energy levels, rather than the energy levels themselves.
That said, there can be medical reasons behind always feeling tired.
So it’s important to visit your GP if:
- you’re feeling exhausted most of the time
- your energy levels make it hard to do your job effectively
- you have trouble staying awake even after a good night’s sleep
- your energy levels negatively affect your moods or relationships
If a medical issue like a vitamin deficiency is behind the tiredness, boosting your energy may be as simple as taking a vitamin supplement or medication. However, supplements are only effective if your body is low in a specific vitamin or mineral. And they need to be an addition to, not a replacement for, a balanced diet.
“If the issue isn’t medical, though,” Dr Jill says, “sometimes giving yourself permission to slow down is enough.”
She adds that energy levels can vary throughout the day for many non-medical reasons, including our circadian rhythms, the presence of stressors, our jobs and more. And these all affect how we feel at different times during the day.
She recommends starting by being mindful about – and accepting – of our changing energy and motivation levels over the day.
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How to increase energy and motivation levels
Of course, lifestyle factors also affect our day-to-day energy. These include the types of food we eat, how much alcohol and caffeine we consume and so on. And Dr Jill says that checking on these things is always a good idea, especially if you’re feeling drained.
Examine your diet
Poor diet is one of the biggest contributing factors to low energy levels. And unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle, since low energy levels often then lead to cutting food corners.
Eating good, brain-healthy foods can increase your energy and motivation. These include:
- fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- lean animal or plant-based protein
- omega 3 rich foods, like oily fish
Dietitian Shivaun Conn says that not drinking enough water can also leave you feeling sluggish. Plus, she adds that sometimes, eating to improve energy levels is as simple as following the advice we give children to, “just eat ‘sometimes foods’ sometimes.”
And when it comes to using superfoods as energy boost supplements, she recommends not buying into the hype.
“Sure, focus on having a diet that’s rich in vegetables, oily fish, herbs and spices, ancient grains and other wholefoods,” she says. “But no one food will increase your energy levels.
They’re actually not ‘superfoods’: just nutrient-dense foods that we should all eat more of.”
Fresh vegetables are nutrient-dense to fuel your brain and give you an energy boost.
Move more often
One of the best ways to naturally boost your energy levels when you’re tired is to move more. This has both instant and longer-term benefits. A quick walk around the block or some squats at your desk can instantly improve your energy levels. And improving your physical fitness will also increase your energy and motivation in the long run.
The World Health Organisation recommends 150-300 minutes (that’s 2.5-5 hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week for adults between 18-64 years.
That number may sound daunting – but if you don’t have time to go to the gym, don’t stress. You can do those minutes at any time, and incidental exercise can be just as effective. That means you don’t need to get your exercise in 30+ minute blocks to benefit from it.
Rest your body
Good sleep hygiene is fundamental to getting the rest you need to energise yourself. But sleeping isn’t the only way we recharge.
Downtime is equally important, and if you don’t get periods of rest within your day, you’ll probably notice issues during your night-time sleep too.
Rest can look like reading a book, taking a moment to soak up the sun or just letting your mind wander while you relax in a comfy chair.
Take some time out to rest and relax with a good book and a cup of tea
Relax your mind
Rest and relaxation aren’t always the same thing. For many of us, getting our brains to slow down is a different process to resting our bodies.
So make sure you also block in some time to go out walking, take a yoga class or practise some deep breathing and meditation.
The only thing you can hack is your mindset
According to Dr Jill, once you’ve looked at all the changes above, shifting your mindset is the best way to improve your energy levels.
“It’s human nature to search for a magic pill, but there isn't one. If there was, I’d buy it!” she says.
Instead, she recommends restructuring, reframing and rethinking our mindsets. In particular, we need to think about long-term, healthy behaviour changes that make us feel better overall, rather than looking for instant fixes.
But how do we make those lifestyle changes seem less daunting? Dr Jill suggests starting by reframing the way we talk about those changes. For example, instead of ‘cutting down’ or ‘avoiding’ certain foods and activities, try talking about ‘swapping them’ for healthier alternatives.
This type of healthy self-talk focuses us on what we’re gaining, rather than what we’re losing. So instead of saying, “I’m eating less chocolate,” say, “I’m snacking on more berries.”
Long-term healthy behaviours like regular exercise are better for energy rather than short-term fixes.
How to use tracking to improve your energy levels
If you feel that low energy levels are affecting your mood, Shivaun suggests tracking them throughout your day and week. This will help you to better understand your natural energy cycle rhythms, so you can use that information to schedule your life accordingly.
“There are always benefits to awareness,” she says. “You can’t change something if you don’t understand it.”
Although there are a bunch of digital trackers on the market, Shivaun says that a simple life planner or notebook is perfect. She recommends also recording your food and water intake, other fluids including alcohol, sleep patterns and physical activity.
“If you record all of this,” she says, “you may get answers to your energy-related questions without having to see your doctor.”
Of course, if you do decide that a trip to the GP is in order, tracking means you have all the information you need in one place.
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Dr Jill Gamberg is a General Practitioner and one of the first Australian Lifestyle Medicine Physicians whose goal is to help prevent disease and maintain wellness with evidence-based practice, and to passionately improve health literacy.
Reviewed by the healthylife advisory panel June 2021