We’ve all been there: the days that stretch into eternity and leave us drained and defeated from deadlines and demands that are bordering on impossible. The only inviting thought is of the couch, and the idea of squeezing in even a short workout sounds like some cruel joke.
But did you know that if we can get past that initial mental hurdle, a workout is often precisely what our body is craving?
Lack of exercise can actually cause fatigue in some cases, which means incorporating regular physical activity into your week may prevent fatigue in the first place. Even if you haven’t gotten to that point, though, exercise can still benefit you in the short term.
Although it sounds counterintuitive, exercise actually fights fatigue, too. One analysis of 70 studies on exercise and fatigue found that over 90 percent of sedentary individuals demonstrated diminished fatigue levels when they completed a regular exercise program. Workouts in these studies were often even more effective than stimulant medications.
Another individual study recently received attention for its findings that otherwise healthy but sedentary, fatigued individuals reported a 20 percent increase in energy levels upon completing six weeks of regular activity.
Lest you think you have to run a marathon to get the effect, rest assured that the individuals in the low-intensity exercise group actually reported a greater reduction in fatigue than those in the moderate-intensity exercise group (although both saw improvements compared to the no-exercise control group).
When it comes to chronic fatigue syndrome, in fact, exercise is considered a highly effective component of treatment, provided the individual starts slowly, keeps it light and low impact (think stretching and body weight strength training), and allows for a work-to-rest ratio of 1:3. Regular exercise can also help reduce fatigue related to autoimmune conditions such as lupus and multiple sclerosis.
How, exactly, does exercise do this? Although exercise can be taxing in that it uses energy, it also increases blood flow, allowing more oxygen and nutrients to reach the muscles to be used to create more energy.
Now for the real scientific part: the cells in our bodies—including the ones that make up muscle fibers—contain small structures called mitochondria, sometimes referred to as the “power plants” of the cell because they’re responsible for assembling little energy units known as adenosine triphosphates (ATP).
Exercise stimulates the production of additional mitochondria, which means our cells can make more ATP—and more ATP, in very unscientific terms, really just means more energy. Phew!
A solid workout also helps to reduce fatigue indirectly by affecting mood. Physical activity can improve alertness and concentration, enhance overall cognitive functioning, reduce stress, produce feel-good endorphins, and improve our sleep; all factors that could lead to feelings of fatigue without this balancing boost. It has been used effectively to treat both anxiety and depression in the short and long term, two additional conditions that can leave a person feeling drained, lethargic—and, yes, quite fatigued.
Even if we know these facts, however, it can be difficult to convince ourselves in the moment that physical activity will alleviate—not worsen—our feelings of exhaustion. Yet this is precisely when a workout has the potential to affect us the most.
Try to identify and gradually eliminate the barriers that stand between you and that exercise session. So often, I find the biggest barrier is simply getting myself into workout clothes; once I dress the part, I feel ready to go. Other strategies include incorporating activity into your daily responsibilities, such as riding a bike to work or errands or bringing the family to the park in the evening instead of settling in for a Netflix binge. Start small and work your way up; even a 10-minute walk after a meal can help.
No amount of physical activity can make up for lack of sleep, however. (No amount of caffeine can either, by the way.) Sometimes our bodies really do just need to rest, and it’s important to respect that.
How many of us are overworked and under-rested in this day and age? We rely on a cocktail of coffee and sleeping aids to do the job that a healthy lifestyle has the power to do all on its own. Exercise can help improve sleep quality, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Go to bed 10–15 minutes earlier each night until you’re sleeping a solid seven to nine hours (although some people wake up rested after less than that). If you’re still having trouble, read up on simple, healthy sleep habits.
If you’re feeling run down, it’s likely not just one thing, but rather a collection of habits that are leaving you chronically drained. Take care of your body by giving it the fuel and movement by day (and rest by night) that it needs, and it will take care of you.