Through the years, I've undoubtedly heard all the reasons people take up exercising. Most do it to get a better body--stronger, sleeker, trimmer, sexier. Not me, though. As far back as I can remember, back to when I first took up running nearly three decades ago, my impetus was to feel more energetic. I noticed that after working out, I had a much higher energy level.
That's still true today. Working out puts fuel in my tank. I need the energy to work, to be with family, to play--and, yes, to work out.
In fact, lack of energy is the No. 1 excuse people give for not exercising regularly. It's a downward cycle: If you don't exercise, you can't be fit, and if you're not fit, you won't have the energy to exercise.
But even if you are generally fit, you still have to watch for what I call energy "vamps"--as in vampires, those creatures that suck the life out of you. Always ready to drain you of strength, energy vamps come in different guises--lack of sleep, overtraining, undertraining, overeating, undereating, too much sugar, unexpressed anger, overexpressed anger, relentless frustration, etc. The list goes on, so it's up to each of us to identify and avoid our own energy vamps.
Long ago I learned from a holistic doctor that I needed to take responsibility for my health and that I could control my actions and environment to serve my goal of fitness. Doing what it takes to achieve a high energy level, he explained, would keep me healthier by nurturing a strong immune system, one that could fight off infections more easily. He likened the human body to a battery-operated device. If we keep the battery charged, it works well. But if the battery goes dead, sickness can't be far behind.
The trick is to continually monitor your own little LED light. Better than recharging it when it gets dim is to never let it dim in the first place.
It took me a long time to accept that I could no longer stay up late, night after night, without either feeling rundown or having to rely on caffeinated beverages. But of course, caffeine provides false energy. While it brings you up temporarily, you eventually have to come crashing down harder than ever. And you pay the price by either feeling sick or getting sick.
In time, I also learned that I could no longer work 14-hour days, day after day; or fly back and forth and back and forth across the country too frequently; or stay too long in heavily air-conditioned rooms, where smokers light up and coughers cough. I now try to avoid these situations as often as possible and to structure my world in a way that allows me to replenish my energy before it runs out.
What works for me is to lie in bed for a few moments upon awakening and make a mental list of what I'm grateful for. I'm a big believer in positive thinking; I believe that positive attracts positive, both moods and events. Without taking that time to number a few blessings, it's too easy to move right from sleep into the quicksand of panic or anxiety.
When I get out of bed, I do a light workout. Science has concluded time and again that even a single, short exercise session can promote a positive mood and enhance creative thinking. Afterward, a healthy breakfast kick starts the metabolism, which is kept humming by eating every three or four hours, balancing some carbs, some protein and some fat. If I'm working at the computer, I make sure to get up at least once an hour to do some simple stretches and get my blood circulating. And no matter what I'm doing, I'll periodically do some deep-breathing exercises, which are profoundly calming.
I also like to go for a short walk after lunch. I do this, in part, for the exercise it provides and, in part, because I think it's necessary to build in certain transition periods during the day. Going directly from one big thing to another and another is a terrible energy vamp.
At night, before bed, I'll make sure that I'm ready to fall into a deep, rejuvenating slumber. Music, warm baths, simple yoga stretches, meditation, deep breathing, lovemaking--these are all wonderful ways to relax mind and body before turning out the light. Just as you have to warm up before exercise, you have to prepare yourself to sleep properly. Because there's nothing like a great night's sleep for painting a happy face on the world.
True, no working person, not even Bill Gates, has the luxury to choose exactly how every minute of every day is going to be spent. But by monitoring your energy level and eliminating as many energy vamps as possible, you can fuel the sense of well-being that makes living seem like a gift, instead of a chore.
Copyright 1999 by Kathy Smith
Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her new video, "Kickboxing Workout." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.