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Fight Fatigue with Energizing Workouts

By Stephanie Vuolo, B.A.
February 2, 2015
Fight Fatigue with Energizing Workouts image

Are you too tired to work out? You’re not alone. Finding natural ways, meaning without caffeine and sugar, to feel invigorated is important. One in five adults worldwide experience persistent fatigue, including 24% of the US.1 The last thing you might feel like doing when you're low on energy is exercising. However, it turns out that one of the best ways to fight fatigue is with regular exercise.2 12 population-based studies conducted between 1945 and 2005 measured the relationship between physical activity and feelings of energy and fatigue. All of these studies found an association between physical activity and a reduced risk of experiencing feelings of low energy and fatigue.3

Despite how active our hunter-gather ancestors were, they did spend a significant amount of time resting and recovering.4 Our modern environment and technological advances have changed both the way we move and rest. How exercise helps fatigue isn't exactly clear, but research suggests it directly impacts the central nervous system to increase feelings of energy and lessen feelings of fatigue.5

Lifestyle factors that lead to fatigue should always be considered first, such as getting adequate sleep (maybe even more than 8 hours),6 proper nutrition, and managing stress, as they all contribute to a restored well-being. Over-training your body without programming the correct recovery time can also lead to feeling tired or weak. Resolving the lifestyle factors can significantly improve any sluggish feelings you may be struggling with.

If exercise is good for us mentally and physically,7 why is it so hard to get going? There’s no one answer. Research indicates that the perception of fatigue leads individuals to believe it takes too much effort to push through their feelings of discomfort during exercise, even when their bodies have the capacity to do the work.8 As tempting as it might be to skip your whole workout when you’re tired, it is better to attempt to participate in something rather than nothing. Specifically, a shorter duration or less demanding program is more beneficial and energizing than sitting in front of the television.

Here are some ideas, based on the exercise principles of duration, frequency, and intensity,9 to get you started:

Low intensity exercise

Skip your regular trip to the gym and take a leisurely walk or bike ride in the outdoors. Exposure to natural light can increase energy10 and improve your mood.11,12

Alternatively, you can practice yoga in the comfort of your home or at a professional studio. In addition to providing a chance to relax your mind and stretch your body, it has been shown to increase energy and improve the quality of life of those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.13,14

Body weight or weighted resistance exercises can also be performed at lower intensity and lower volume. Low-intensity strength training has been shown to have similar results on muscle strength and tissue composition compared to higher-intensity lifting.15

High intensity exercise

There is compelling evidence on the benefits of high intensity training.16 However, on the days when you’re especially tired, consider doing a very short duration workout, for 8-10 minutes, of high intensity training to maximize the effects on your energy level.17

Performing a grueling, endurance-type high intensity workout when you’re tired can lead to an increased stress response from the body,18 as well as lead to injury from failure to maintain proper form through the movements.

When you’re low on energy, choose to do something you enjoy doing for exercise, even if it's much easier than how you normally move. You can make up the heavy strength training or long endurance rides after you’re feeling rejuvenated enough to tackle the task. Listening to your body while maintaining your active lifestyle is a key habit to maintain the life-long habit of healthy living.


[1] Chen, Martin K. "The epidemiology of self-perceived fatigue among adults."Preventive medicine 15.1 (1986): 74-81.

[2] Puetz, Timothy W., Patrick J. O'Connor, and Rod K. Dishman. "Effects of chronic exercise on feelings of energy and fatigue: a quantitative synthesis."Psychological bulletin 132.6 (2006): 866.

[3] Puetz, Timothy W. "Physical activity and feelings of energy and fatigue." Sports medicine 36.9 (2006): 767-780.

[4] O'Keefe, James H., et al. "Exercise like a hunter-gatherer: a prescription for organic physical fitness." Progress in cardiovascular diseases 53.6 (2011): 471-479.

[5] Puetz, Timothy W. "Physical activity and feelings of energy and fatigue." Sports medicine 36.9 (2006): 767-780.

[6] Czeisler, Charles A., et al. "Human sleep: its duration and organization depend on its circadian phase." Science 210.4475 (1980): 1264-1267.

[7] Stathopoulou, Georgia, et al. "Exercise interventions for mental health: a quantitative and qualitative review." Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice13.2 (2006): 179-193.

[8] Marcora, Samuele. "Perception of effort during exercise is independent of afferent feedback from skeletal muscles, heart, and lungs." Journal of applied physiology 106.6 (2009): 2060-2062.

[9] Shephard, Roy J. "Intensity, duration and frequency of exercise as determinants of the response to a training regime." Internationale Zeitschrift fuer Angewandte Physiologie Einschliesslich Arbeitsphysiologie 26.3 (1968): 272-278.

[10] Eastman, Charmane I., et al. "Light treatment for sleep disorders: Consensus report VI. Shift work." Journal of Biological Rhythms 10.2 (1995): 157-164.

[11] Terman, Michael, and Jiuan Su Terman. "Bright light therapy: side effects and benefits across the symptom spectrum." Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 60.11 (1999): 799-808.

[12] O'Keefe, James H., et al. "Achieving Hunter-gatherer Fitness in the 21< sup> st Century: Back to the Future." The American journal of medicine123.12 (2010): 1082-1086.

[13] Chandwani, Kavita D., et al. "Yoga improves quality of life and benefit finding in women undergoing radiotherapy for breast cancer." Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology 8.2 (2009): 43-55.

[14] Oken, B. S., et al. "Randomized controlled trial of yoga and exercise in multiple sclerosis." Neurology 62.11 (2004): 2058-2064.

[15] Taaffe, D. R., et al. "Comparative effects of high‐and low‐intensity resistance training on thigh muscle strength, fiber area, and tissue composition in elderly women." Clinical Physiology 16.4 (1996): 381-392.

[16] Laursen, Paul B., and David G. Jenkins. "The scientific basis for high-intensity interval training." Sports Medicine 32.1 (2002): 53-73.

[17] Babraj, John A., et al. "Extremely short duration high intensity interval training substantially improves insulin action in young healthy males." BMC Endocrine Disorders 9.1 (2009): 3.

[18] Urhausen, Axel, Holger Gabriel, and Wilfried Kindermann. "Blood hormones as markers of training stress and overtraining." Sports medicine 20.4 (1995): 251-276.

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