Low Energy Goes Beyond Diet and Exercise

If you’re feeling listless, diet and exercise may help, but to really get yourself going, you may need to address a deeper need

Many people feel empty, exhausted, and worn out from life. They just don’t have the energy they need to do the things life is throwing at them. This listlessness is fairly common.

Research published in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 2018 found that a persistent lack of energy affects between 20 and 45 percent of Americans. According to a 2021 study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, lack of energy is a problem older adults frequently experience.

For many, the problem comes down to stress and problems sleeping; for others, it’s daily habits; and for nearly everyone, a major factor is that we just don’t have things in our lives to get energized about.

Stress and Sleep Problems

A rough sleep can leave you feeling depleted. Instead of bounding out of bed with a spring in your step, you feel sluggish and unmotivated.

There are many reasons people don’t get restful sleep, but one of the most common is stress.

Data from a recent survey from the American Psychological Association show that fatigue affected 32 percent of respondents, with nearly 90 percent of younger adults reporting that they were experiencing the impacts of stress.

It makes sense that stress and fatigue go hand in glove. Stress triggers our body to prepare for action with hormones and blood sugar to match. That’s fine for short bursts, but enduring stress grinds the body down.

And when fatigue keeps us from getting our tasks done, all too often we resort to the worst possible solutions. We spend our days chugging down coffee or sugar or super-sized energy drinks. Some people take energy shots and down powdered packets. Energy drinks are a big business now, with about $134.2 billion in worldwide sales each year, according to Statista.

To fix our energy-depleted selves more naturally, conventional wisdom tells us all we need to do is to get more sleep, eat healthier food, and exercise more. That’s all good advice, of course. But, according to Dr. Maggie Yu, those recommendations often miss the deeper need we have for meaning and purpose.

No Longer a Parent, Not Yet a Grandparent

A functional medical doctor based in Portland, Oregon, Yu has struggled with not having energy. At 52, she recently found herself with an empty nest. When both her young adult children, ages 18 and 21, moved out of state, she felt profoundly unmoored. She was no longer a parent and not yet a grandparent. Unsure of who she was now that she no longer had children at home, Yu felt like she had no energy.

“I lost my purpose. I got really depressed,” Yu said. “It’s lonely. There’s a shift.”

What Yu was experiencing was similar to what some older adults often go through when they stop working. Retirement is a life change that usually involves loss of routine, social connections, colleagues, status, accomplishments, and aspirations. According to a meta-analysis done by scientists in Spain, nearly 30 percent of retirees suffered from depression.

While some older adults enjoy a higher quality of life after they retire, others find that when they lose their professional connections and no longer have a 9-to-5 job to report to, they become unsure of who they are and how they should spend their time.

Many of us blame our lack of energy on aging. But, as Johns Hopkins Medicine says, “getting older doesn’t automatically mean less vibrancy and vigor, or lower energy levels—no matter what our youth-obsessed culture would have you believe.”

I know people who are in their 70s, 80s, and even a few in their 90s who are brimming with energy. I wrote about some of them in a recent article about getting fit as we get older. What’s their secret?

As a holistic-minded doctor, Yu tries to get to the root causes of her patients’ ills. A lack of energy can often come from a sedentary lifestyle combined with the ping pong effect of a diet high in refined sugars, empty calories, and processed and artificial foods. A lack of high-quality sleep can also leave you fatigued. But Yu believes the real reason adults of any age lose their energy is that they aren’t participating in activities that give meaning to their lives and that help others at the same time.

A Purpose-Filled Life

There are three things that really feed your energy, Yu told me: your purpose, your creativity, and giving life to others.

In other words, a common root cause of not having enough energy, according to Yu, is not living a purpose-filled life. This means the best way to have more energy is to find activities that are purposeful, creative, and life-giving.

She advises people who are feeling low energy to ask themselves: “What would be educational to me? What would spark my curiosity? What would be life-giving to others or to myself? And what creative endeavors would I enjoy?”

For Yu, the answer to those questions led her to discover several new interests: Though she still works full-time as a doctor (albeit remotely from a home office), she decided to learn how to train animals, breed rare aquarium fish, raise aquatic plants, and also study the chemistry and science behind proper skincare. The rescue dog she is training (though she’s a self-described cat person) and her aquarium fish energize her in unexpected ways.

“We have the skills, we have the wisdom, we have the experience,” Yu said, referring to older adults learning new skills. “Why not?”

The average life expectancy in 1900 was about 47 years old. Today, most Americans will live until their late 70s. “Now we’re living longer and being more physically active. It’s a new age,” said Dr. Cammy Benton, an integrative family physician based in Huntersville, North Carolina. “People are having two entire careers. They retire from one and start another at age 50. We can live longer and have new choices and have more energy to boot. It’s all about your mindset.”

The Feng Shui of Fish

Yu started becoming interested in fish when her daughter got a fish tank while Oregon was under lockdown. She studied rare breeds, discovered that some fish had gone extinct outside of aquarium breeding, and joined several Portland-area fish clubs.

“There’s education involved, competition involved, volunteerism, giving and sharing. If you want money you can sell fish,” Yu said. “Spending three hours cleaning fish tanks is life-giving in my mind, because they’re living beings that are dependent on me. It’s really therapeutic.”

The Chinese tradition of feng shui involves arranging your living space to create balance with the natural world. In feng shui, when you harness energy forces, you establish harmony between yourself and your environment.

Having water inside the home is important in feng shui, Yu told me. In Asian cultures, indoor falling water can bring luck, joy, and prosperity into your life.

Now Yu has seven fish tanks in her home and breeds six kinds of fish, which she shares with her local aquarium clubs so younger people can get fish for free or at low cost. As much as she is learning from the Greater Portland Aquarium Society, she has also become a mentor there.

And Yu’s interest in aquarium fish blossomed into an interest in aquatic horticulture. She says breeding and propagating aquatic plants is another pursuit that can give you energy.

Yu’s solution to wanting more energy was to discover new interests that involved learning chemistry, caregiving, and helping others. She said she has been teaching herself what she needed to know by watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, and attending meetings of other enthusiasts.

Try a trampoline

Yu has another trick to get more energy: She spends time every day on a small bungee-style trampoline. This was Louise Hay’s trick as well. Hay, founder of Hay House Publishing and the bestselling author of “You Can Heal Your Life,” did a hundred jumps on the trampoline every day.

But you don’t have to jump into the air, Yu said. You just stand on it and bend your knees so you’re moving your body up and down.

“It moves your lymph around like crazy,” she said. “It’s very energizing.”

In addition, trampolining and other balancing exercises are good for the vestibular system inside the brain, helping to improve your balance and depth perception, which are two things that tend to get off-kilter when you age. “If you’re older, get a trampoline with a handrail,” she said.

And while you’re bouncing, you can brainstorm other new activities you’d be excited to try.


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