Exercise for Energy: Workouts That Work

Want to fight fatigue? Here's what kind of exercise - and how much - is best.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

There you are, sitting on the couch, remote in hand, thinking, "I should be exercising. If only I weren't too tired to get off the couch!" Indeed, fatigue is among the most common complaints doctors hear. But you might be surprised to learn that experts say one of the best antidotes to beating fatigue and boosting energy is to exercise more, not less.

"It's now been shown in many studies that once you actually start moving around -- even just getting up off the couch and walking around the room -- the more you will want to move, and, ultimately, the more energy you will feel," says Robert E. Thayer, PhD, a psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach, and author of the book Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood With Food.

And, experts say, when it comes to fighting fatigue, not all exercise is created equal. Read on to find out what kind of exercise -- and how much -- you should be doing for optimum energy-boosting results.

Just How Does Exercise Boost Energy?

In a study published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics in 2008, University of Georgia researchers found that inactive folks who normally complained of fatigue could increase energy by 20% while decreasing fatigue by as much as 65% by simply participating in regular, low-intensity exercise.

Further, Thayer says, a study he plans to present at an American Psychological Association meeting reveals that on days when people walked more total daily steps, they ended the day with more energy then on days when they walked less.

How exactly does this happen?

"Contrary to popular belief, exercising doesn't make you tired -- it literally creates energy in your body. Your body rises up to meet the challenge for more energy by becoming stronger," says nutritionist Samantha Heller, MS, RD, a nutrition advisor for the Journey for Control diabetes program.

Heller says this happens on the cellular level, where the first stirrings of our natural energy production begin. "It all begins with tiny organs called mitochondria. Located in our cells, they work like tiny power plants to produce energy," she says.

While some of that energy comes from your diet (one reason that eating too little can power down your metabolism), the number of mitochondria you have -- and thus your ability to produce energy -- is affected by your daily activity.

"For example, the more you exercise aerobically, the more mitochondria the body makes to produce more energy to meet your needs, which is one reason how -- and why -- regular cardiovascular exercise actually creates more available energy for your body," says Heller.

Exercise for Energy: What Really Works

So just how do you go about getting some of this energy for yourself?

First of all, Thayer says, it's important to understand that there are different types of energy. And not all have the same positive effect on the body.

He says that many Americans, particularly "achievement-oriented Type A people" have "tense energy" -- an effective state that allows you to get lots of work done, but that can quickly move into tense-tiredness, a negative state often associated with depression.

On the other hand, what he calls "calm energy" is a combination of a high physical and mental energy level, paired with low physical tension. It is this state, he says, that offers more long-lasting energy. And, he says, it can be achieved with the right kind of exercise.

"What summarizes the relationship best is moderate exercise -- like a 10- or 15-minute walk -- has the primary effect of increased energy, while very intense exercise -- like working out at the gym, 45 minutes of treadmill -- has the primary effect of at least temporarily reducing energy, because you come away tired," he says.

Behavioral therapist and personal trainer Therese Pasqualoni, PhD, agrees.

When exercising for energy, she says, "You should always aim to exercise in your low to moderate training heart rate range. This will prevent you from depleting your body, and help you avoid feeling fatigued, which would otherwise prevent you from getting the maximum energy benefits."

Of course, what's moderate for some may be too little for others. "How much you can do before you cross the threshold into tiredness is often dependent upon how well your body is conditioned," Thayer says.

In addition to walking, experts say other forms of exercise that help increase "calm energy" are yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, and, sometimes, resistance strength training, particularly when done with slow, deliberate motions.


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