We expect a lot from our cell phones. Not only do we use them to make and receive calls on the go, but we rely on our cells for texting, accessing e-mail, listening to music, snapping pictures, recording video, playing games -- the list could go on and on. But as amazing as these devices are, they're not invincible. Certain tasks, such as watching a movie or roaming out of network, eat up lots more of your phone's battery than other activities. If you're not careful, you'll end up with a dead phone and no charger.
Our bodies are no different, because we expect a lot from them as well. Each day, we're responsible for different functions, just like our phones. Traveling to the Riviera may be akin to the more glamorous features of a phone. Packing the kids' lunches or taking out the trash, however, are about as exciting as tracking the minutes you've used.
And just like that phone, each activity has the potential to run down your battery and leave you lethargic and lifeless. What are these physical energy zappers that threaten our batteries, our bodies? Let's start the countdown.
A Bad Night's Sleep
If we view the body as a battery, then sleep is the most obvious charger. Our bodies rely on the rest provided by a good night's sleep to get through a busy day. One bad night can throw the whole system off.
When it comes to sleep, both quantity and quality matter. Eight hours seems to be the needed amount of sleep for most people. While some people may need a slightly higher or lower amount, it's important to get that quantity of sleep each and every night. If not, you'll be a walking zombie without the energy to pick up a pencil. And don't think that you can hold off until the weekends to sleep in; studies have found sleeping longer than usual can result in even more fatigue [source: Harvard].
Maybe you carved out the time to get your full eight hours, but you tossed and turned all night. To fully recharge, your body needs to reach a state of deep sleep, which is believed to play the biggest role in restoring energy. During this state of sleep, your blood pressure and pulse rate drop, as compared to the more active stage of REM sleep when you dream. If you're not getting enough shut-eye and feeling the effects in the morning, try to evaluate what choices might be getting in your way, like late-night caffeine.
Sleep's the foundation for many of the items on this list. Just try, for example, to face the office without it.
Overworked at the Office
It may seem strange that simply sitting at a desk for eight hours could zap your physical energy, but it's true, especially when you consider that today's workers are logging more hours on the job than ever before. In 2004, a study found that one in three employees in the United States is chronically overworked [source: Harvard]. In addition to the time spent in the office formatting presentations, meeting with clients and writing reports, there's also the time spent commuting and the private time spent obsessively checking BlackBerry devices.
When your inbox never seems to empty and you have more fire drills in the course of a day than you can handle, then you're in a constant state of stress. Stress sets off a person's fight-or-flight response -- there's a rush of hormones, an increase in blood flow and a bump in heart rate as your body prepares for a struggle. While these reactions saved our ancestors' lives when they had to run away from a bear, the process simply zaps energy in the face of a bullying boss you can't escape. When your body never gets a chance to slow down, you'll be wiped out by lunchtime.
When your job spills over into non-working hours, the things that could recharge your energy battery suffer as well. You get less sleep and load up on caffeine and are puzzled as to why you feel so tired. You check e-mail on vacation then wonder why the trip wasn't restful. While the other side of the spectrum -- unemployment -- would be no better at staving off constant stress, it's important to seek a better work-life balance. So put down the PDA and learn what else might zap your energy.
Errands and Chores
You finally break free of the confines of the office, but before you can indulge your passion for scrapbooking or target shooting, a few things need to get done. It seems like a short list: pick up groceries, exchange a sweater at the mall, mow the lawn, check in on your aging relatives at the nursing home and cook three meals. Perhaps you see where this is going -- by the time you finish your list (if you even make it halfway through), you're exhausted and zapped of energy. So long, scrapbooking. Better luck next time, target shooting. A long list of errands and chores also represents overwork, but instead of stress at the office, you're dealing with stress in the home.
Sometime we work so hard during the week that our to-do list in the evenings and weekends becomes absolutely massive. In addition to the physical demands that chores like mowing the lawn, cleaning the house and roaming the grocery store place on our bodies, they contribute to stress as we scramble around trying to get everything done.
Ideally, we all need some free time to relax, recover and enjoy things that truly interest us. Whether it's knitting, ballroom dancing or skateboarding, engaging in these activities will provide you with the rejuvenating blast of energy you need. But before you can break out the knitting needles, you may need to prioritize that foreboding to-do list. With a little time to yourself, you just may find the extra energy needed to brave the grocery store.
The previous two spots on our list pointed out how much work you were doing in the office and the home, so you've planned the perfect vacation to get away from it all. You'll be going in winter, when you can escape the energy-zapping claws of short, dark days and Seasonal Affective Disorder. A week away from your mundane life sounds like the perfect refresher, right?
Unfortunately, a vacation isn't always as restorative as we may hope. Travel comes with its own share of stressors, as anyone who's hauled a toddler through an airport or spent 16 hours in a minivan with a surly teenager can attest. Even a solo eight-hour drive can leave a person feeling weary and overworked.
Travel zaps your energy in several ways. First off, if you're changing time zones, you're messing with the biological clock that regulates your sleep cycle. Just as you reset your wristwatch upon landing in a different place, the biological clock also needs to be reset. The process can take several days, a period of time often referred to as jet lag. You're wide awake during the wee hours of the morning and then trying not to fall asleep in your bowl of soup by lunch.
Vacations also lead us to abandon our normally good behavior; for example, if we forego our normal spending habits and splurge on souvenirs, we may have financial stress waiting for us when we return home. You're also likely skipping your morning sit-up routine to sightsee and scarfing down creamy pastas every night, which stresses the body and eliminates the energy the trip was supposed to provide. Read more about how food choices can zap our energy on the next page.
You want to lose a few pounds, so you've gone on a low-calorie diet. But instead of heeding advice about how many calories you need to consume in a given day, you've decided to give up calories entirely. That should help you lose weight faster, right? Wrong -- this kind of unhealthy choice causes your body to go into starvation mode. Not only will you not lose weight, you'll experience an immediate drop in energy as well. Your body tries to conserve the little energy that it has left by storing all calories as fat and throwing your muscle on the energy fire.
But obviously, excess food isn't the answer either. Too much food depletes energy, especially when those extra pounds start appearing, a phenomenon we'll discuss later. And while sugary food may promise a quick rush of energy, it also provides a crash that comes just as quickly. A sweet treat like a candy bar causes a huge release of insulin, which lowers blood sugar and leaves you feeling sluggish. For the most energy all day long, you should consider small snacks and meals every few hours that will keep your sugar levels at an even keel.
Dietary choices include the beverages you consume, but this category is so important that we've dedicated an entire page to it. Next, find out what you should be drinking with your healthy snacks.
Your car's dashboard has several different warning lights, some of which might lead you to check your fluid levels. If only your body had the same kind of warning system. In fact, we're equipped with a weak thirst detector, and the mechanism only kicks in when dehydration becomes fairly serious [source: Napier]. As a result, many of us are walking around mildly dehydrated, which puts huge demands on our energy levels. Without a hydrated body, blood circulation slows down, which means that blood, with its valuable nutrients and oxygen, isn't getting to your muscles.
But hey, if you really want a beverage that packs a punch in terms of energy, you're more likely to turn to soda or coffee, right? This does more long-term damage, since these hits of caffeine intensify dehydration by causing more frequent urination. Caffeine also takes about 10 or 12 hours to completely disappear from the bloodstream, so consuming it in the late afternoon or evening can prevent you from getting those critical hours of sleep [source: Liu].
Maybe, though, you feel you're too far gone with a caffeine habit that you can't stop now. After all, a day without coffee gives you headaches and energy slumps as well, so shouldn't you stick with it? Don't quit caffeine cold turkey, but withdraw gradually. And if you want a real energy hit, drink water.
No man is an island, if poet John Donne is to be believed. And no matter how much energy you've stored in the personal island of your body, other people are the waves that lap to shore and suck it up. Our relationships with those around us can cause emotional stress and wear us down, particularly if the person is especially negative or if the dynamics of the relationship are unhealthy.
Everyone has the potential to draw on our energy reserves, but you can likely think of a few people who take more than their fair share. For example, while you may love your job and your coworkers, there's probably one person that you dread running into at the water cooler or on your way to the bathroom. That person always has a sad tale of woe about workload and weekend plans that brings you down. It can even happen with your own friends -- you look forward to a fun after-work happy hour only to trudge home in an awful mood after listening to a pal whine and moan about love life problems and financial worries.
Whether it's a meddling mother-in-law or a needy sibling, other people stress us to the point that it drains our physical energy reserves. Not that the alternative -- truly being an island -- is any better. In one study, individuals who described themselves as lonely had more trouble getting those crucial hours of sleep than those who felt socially satisfied [source: Liu].
When you're wiped out, lying on the couch and pondering how to get dinner to teleport its way from the cupboards to your mouth, the last thing you want to do is put on the tennis shoes for a walk or a few miles on the stationary bike. Yet even though it seems like exercise might deplete your last remaining energy reserves, it's actually the best way to beat fatigue and feel refreshed.
If you ignore your gym membership for long periods at a time, you'll face long-term energy loss as well. In addition to those extra pounds that will make moving around much harder, your muscles will weaken. This means that your body will have to work even harder at tasks that should be manageable, such as climbing stairs or walking a few blocks. What should be a simple walk across town will leave an out-of-shape person more fatigued than necessary. Someone who exercises regularly, however, will have more energy and find everyday errands a bit easier.
Additionally, exercise can help you with some of the other energy zappers on this list. For example, a brisk workout increases your chances of getting a replenishing night's sleep. It also helps the body tackle stress, a word that you may have noticed recurring on this list. And exercise releases endorphins into the body. These are chemicals that help a person feel good and more energized. These endorphins can assist you with the energy zapper on the next page.
When you feel as if you're always dealing with depleted energy reserves and fatigue, it may be more than a long list of errands or dehydration wearing you out. Lack of energy is a common symptom of depression, along with extreme sadness, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite and low-quality sleep. Of those who seek medical attention for ongoing energy loss or fatigue, about 20 to 40 percent are suffering from depression or anxiety [source: Harvard].
We've already highlighted how a bad night's sleep can zap energy, but when you add in some of the other symptoms of depression, it's easy to see how the disorder becomes an energy suck. One way that most people recharge their energy batteries is by engaging in pleasurable activities, but depressed people lose the taste for activities they used to find enjoyable. Additionally, people suffering from depression can get caught in a web of negative thoughts, which makes it even harder to get up and exercise, to eat healthier or to make an effort to deal with stress at work or in the home.
Treatment for depression is available, but it may be hard to avoid our No. 1 energy zapper entirely.
Holidays represent a culmination of all the other items on this list. You're traveling at a time when airports are crowded and highways are packed. You're likely going to be spending time with family members, some of whom have the tendency to wear you down. You may be overworking yourself to provide a great meal for 20 people or a touching gift for every coworker on a limited budget. You want to decorate the house but you have to clean it first.
You're noshing on unhealthy party snacks and gigantic meals and guzzling eggnog instead of milk. It's one of the hardest times for people who are alone. What do all of these things have in common? That S-word we've referred to several times already: stress.
In addition to the everyday stress we've touched upon in this article, holidays carry the extra burden of high expectations. We want holidays to be perfect, and we run ourselves ragged trying to make them so. When you juggle this many balls in the air, it's no wonder that Thanksgiving or Christmas with the family can make you feel like a walking zombie.
Hide yourself away from the thoughts of these energy-zapping holidays by reading some of the stories on the next page.
Chronic fatigue syndrome has a serious impact on teen lives, and at a rate higher than we thought. Learn more in this HowStuffWorks Now article.
More Great Links
- Harvard Medical School. "Boosting Your Energy." Harvard Health Publications. 2008.
- Liu, Lynda. "14 Energy Drainers -- and Fixes." Fitness Magazine. (Oct. 21, 2008)http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/health/energy-boosters/tips/energy-drainers-fixes/
- Napier, Kristine. "Never Feel Tired Again." Prevention. November 1995.
- Sorgen, Carol. "What's Zapping Your Energy?" WebMD. March 25, 2008. (Oct. 21, 2008)http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/whats-zapping-your-energy
- University of Michigan. "Warm Weather Boosts Mood, Broadens the Mind." ScienceDaily. Oct. 7, 2004. (Oct. 21, 2008)http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/10/041006082239.htm
- Weiss, Tara. "Avoiding the Afternoon Slump." Forbes. April 1, 2008. (Oct. 21, 2008)http://www.forbes.com/2008/04/01/workplace-office-slump-lead-careers-cx_tw_0401bizbasics.html