Energy is the currency of life. When you have enough, life is more enjoyable. When you don’t, life is more challenging. If you have a health issue that causes fatigue, energy is a limited resource you need to use well. Physiologists recently discovered your body has a fixed energy budget. Just as your family budget works better when you know your income and expenses, your energy is more sustainable when you know what depletes and drains it. This article is about how to optimize your energy. You’ll learn the lesson that exercise for energy is not the only important factor in the equation and add five new foundational factors that drain or boost your energy: stress, stamina, sustenance, sleep, and spirit.
What is energy?
Energy is the fuel for your cells that keeps you alive and thriving. Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. It’s more than just burning calories. Your body’s ability to produce and use energy is a set of highly complex processes. Although there are many products in the media that tout improving metabolism, nothing does it like exercise. But not about how many calories you are burning, it’s exercising in the specific ways that improve and keep the equipment your body needs for turning food into energy.
Much research has been done to understand what affects metabolism and how you can maximize it so you have enough energy for not just surviving but thriving. If you struggle with fatigue, you know that not having enough energy means you are just surviving. Having enough energy to thrive is what it means to be truly healthy and well.
Thanks to the research by scientists like Herman Pontzer and his team, we have a more updated understanding about energy than ever before. They found we don’t produce energy and burn calories in unlimited amounts.1 Like your cell phone, there is a max capacity for the energy your body can store and use.
This fixed energy budget begs us to reconsider how to maximize our energy in a way that allows us to thrive. As with your cell phone, it’s smart to use your energy wisely and recharge it regularly. That’s how it will work for you in the most efficient and effective way.
How you boost your energy matters
You could eat healthy to get more energy, but stress can drain that energy quickly. You could exercise for energy, but it can be boring and lose its ability to give you energy. You could meditate to reduce stress and sleep better, but if your body is uncomfortable while meditating, it can cause more stress.
Having energy is more than just what is happening in your body, because you are not just a physical being. Your whole person is affected by your thoughts, emotions, and intuition. Each part of you—mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual—are in constant communication. Changes in one area affect the other. There is no changing that, but there is a way to use it to have the kind of user-friendly energy you need to thrive.
The right kind of user-friendly energy
Unharnessed energy, like when you’re angry, is not very user-friendly. It’s like you have one of those crazy sock flags flying around in all directions in your body and brain. We want user-friendly energy. That is when you are able to choose how you use your energy budget.
This is the kind of energy that allows us to be at our best and use our strengths and talents in a way that brings out the best in us and those around us.
Whole-person health is the way to user-friendly, sustainable energy.
When your energy comes from whole-person health, it is balanced, directable, and usable. This is because what you choose to do to maximize your energy considers each part of your whole person.
There are three key skills for whole-person health:
- Mindfulness: awareness of what is here and now
- Self-kindness: willingness to take care of yourself
- Movement science: the internal and external movements that allow you to survive so you can thrive
Another word for the combination of these skills is Exercising Well because you are moving to shift into the physiology of being ‘well’ or the Thrive State.
These three skills maximize how you use, produce, and recharge your energy in a way that supports whole-person health and lasting habits.
The five S’s for whole-person energy
Let’s look at how to use these three skills for each of the five S’s— stress, stamina, sustenance, sleep, and spirit—to maximize your sustainable energy to thrive.
Stress: How to keep it from draining your energy
Stress is a normal part of being human. Stressors are the things that cause the physiological changes in your body called stress. It is the state of ‘trying to get somewhere else. There is a real or perceived threat to your surviving and thriving and your cells shift their energy use to fight, flee, or freeze. Those changes are your wakeup call that you have left the state of well. It’s an invitation to take action to shift your cells back to the well state. That’s when your whole person is recharging, repairing and renewing energy stores.
Mindfulness. Your brain has two qualities that allow you to survive: time travel and a bad-news bias. Time travel means your brain will travel to the past and future quickly. It does this to search for real or potential threats to your survival. It’s not a problem in the least! It has helped us survive as a species.
Your body is hardwired to respond to thoughts, whether they are real or not. This teamwork approach again is not a problem, it keeps you safe. The problem is when we are not aware of when we are on a journey to problems that are not here and now. That drains energy because you can’t fix the past or future, you can only take care of what is here and now.
Mindfulness is the skill of noticing when your thoughts are in the past and future and going down a rabbit hole of problems that are not happening right now. The present moment is the only place where you experience calm, confidence, and connection. Mindfulness gives you the superpower of using your energy to take care of what is happening now, instead of wasting it on what has happened in the past or might happen in the future.
Self-kindness. While mindfulness lets you see what is here and now, self-kindness gives you the ability to use your energy to take care of yourself now.
That bad-news bias is not just judging what is happening on the outside, it also judges what his happening on this inside. Combine that with the time-travel thing, and you can find a lot to criticize inside! That inner battle drains energy faster than any external threat can. You can’t escape it because you are living with your own threat.
When you see someone you care about in need, the natural energy of kindness is released. You can turn that kindness inward and be generous and understanding with yourself. And just as someone being kind to you can change your whole day, being kind to yourself is even more powerful! I call that Being Kind Inside and it’s not selfish, it’s self-sustaining.
Movement science. Stress causes a great shift of movement in your cells .2 Some systems, like digestion, slow down their work to use less energy. Some systems, like the cardiovascular system, speed up and use more energy. The nervous system tells muscles to tense and be ready to move.
Like a runner in a starting block, this ‘on alert’ stance takes energy. This fact is essential to keep in mind for a complete stress antidote. You can change your thinking, but without movement, your body is still holding that ‘ready to move’ tension’, telling your brain there is a problem to solve.
But not all movement reduces stress. Moving can add to stress if your thoughts are in the past or future, trying to get somewhere else, and if you’re energized by emotions like anger or fear.
Exercise is known to reduce stress, but if the movements you are doing are not based on the science of how your body is designed to move, it causes stress and tension. Sit-ups, for example, are not something the body is designed to do. When you do them, your body is strained, telling your brain there is a problem to solve.
Moving the way you are designed, with mindfulness, as an act of self-kindness is the complete stress solution. It’s the shortcut back to the well state.
Stamina: How to have lasting energy
Stamina is the ability to move for extended periods of time without getting tired and needing to stop. It is best built through cardiovascular exercise. However, in shortening the name to cardio, we have lost the point of what this type of exercise actually does and how to do it well.
The cardiovascular system has four parts that improve when you move continuously for more than three minutes. Why three minutes? Because for the first three minutes, your muscle cells do not have adequate blood flow to deliver oxygen to produce energy aerobically. Instead, they rely on the anaerobic energy system to produce energy instantly. Like burning paper to start a fire, this energy gets you moving but burns out quickly. After about three minutes, the cardiovascular system is ready to redirect blood flow away from your digestive system and more oxygen-rich blood can be sent to cells to produce energy in a more sustainable way.
Keeping this system tuned up is the best way to help your body turn the food you eat and the air you breathe into energy.
Mindfulness. Awareness of your breathing is your best guide to how this system is working. When your breathing is labored, it rarely means you don’t have enough oxygen. It means you are working anaerobically. The byproduct of the anaerobic system is CO2. Shortness of breath is your body trying to get rid of CO2.
Noticing your breath as you move tells you if you have lost stamina from a time of inactivity. It tells you if you are pushing your body too hard and need to slow down so your cells can produce more sustainable energy. It is the most accurate gauge you have of how well your aerobic system is working in the moment.
Self-kindness. One of the most challenging things to do is to slow down and pace yourself. When your brain wants you to keep moving, but your body is saying no, self-criticism is often the first response. Self-kindness gives you the willingness to listen to your body and slow down or rest when needed. That is the way you will reap the benefits of cardiovascular exercise.
Movement science. Cardiovascular exercise is moving intentionally to engage the aerobic system so it builds and retains the equipment to produce energy aerobically in a sustained way. Most of our daily activities are not very sustained—they are stop and go, so they use the anaerobic system.
When stamina is low, finding a kind of cardiovascular exercise that your body can do now is the key. Activities like walking start at a lower level of exertion. Seated aerobics work well if you have weight-bearing pain.
Whatever you do, doing it three days of the week is key, because after not doing cardiovascular exercise for more than three days, your body starts to lose the equipment needed to produce energy aerobically.
Cardiovascular exercise helps the other energy resources work better too. It churns up the right balance of feel-good brain chemicals that give stress protection. It provides the equipment your cells need to use the food you eat and the air you breathe to produce energy. Without that equipment, the sustenance we discuss below just can’t work to give you energy.
Mindfulness, self-kindness, and movement science allow you to transform cardiovascular exercise into a resource for sustainable whole-person energy.
Sustenance: How to have more energy by nourishing well
Eating and drinking for nourishment is essential for our cells to have the ingredients to produce energy. But only when you have an understanding of how your body uses energy, will any food, even a superfood, have its superpower.
Mindfulness: Your fixed energy budget. This means energy is allocated just like you would allocate a fixed financial budget. When you are in the Survive State during eating, less energy goes into digestion, so your body is not able to extract the nutrients from your food as well as when you are in the Thrive State. Mindful eating is not just paying attention when you are eating, its noticing if your physiology is in the Survive State when you are taking in food and taking steps to shift your physiology before you eat. This helps the food you are eating give you energy for thriving.
Self-kindness: Eating is the act of saying “yes!” to life. When you eat to fix health concerns, you are eating to fix a problem. When your body is the problem, it’s like living with someone you don’t like. Self-compassion skills help to repair the relationship between your brain and body. This mindset shift to eating as an act of whole person self-care shifts your physiology as well, so you are sustaining life-giving energy. Eating becomes a celebration of your passions in life.
Movement science: Stamina means your body has the equipment needed to produce lasting energy. Strength is when your body has the equipment needed in your muscles, connective tissue, nervous system, and bones to move against gravity. Your body needs a balance of both cardiovascular exercise and functional strength exercises to build and keep this equipment for turning the food you eat into energy. This mindset shift from exercising to burn calories and ‘tone’ to exercising to have and keep the equipment to turn food into energy completely changes the relationship between eating and exercising. As you exercise, visualize the equipment you are building that turns protein into muscle, calcium into bone, and whole grains into energy.
Sleep: How to optimize sleep by resting well
Although the why and how is not completely clear to scientists yet, sleep is an essential part of whole-person health.
Sleep affects energy and metabolic health in many ways. Sleep disturbances from interrupted sleep schedules, insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, shift work, menopause, and others affect metabolism. When sleep is disrupted for an extended time, you might notice weight gain and food cravings. Lack of sleep can also affect medical conditions like type 2 diabetes and depression.3 Mindfulness 4, self-compassion5 and exercise6 all have been shown independently to improve sleep quality. They work well together for a time-efficient whole-person sleep solution, with great side effects in other areas of health and energy too!
Mindfulness. What do you notice when you don’t get enough sleep? For example, you might notice more cravings for simple sugars, a reduction in short-term memory and focus, less motivation to move, and a greater potential to shift to the stress state over something small.
Mindfulness allows you to clarify how this feeds a downward spiral of fatigue because a lack of healthy sleep limits your ability to manage stress, eat healthy, sustain stamina, and connect with your passions.
Self-kindness. Self-kindness allows you to stay curious about what’s happening, rather than being pulled down further by self-criticism. Self-compassion techniques like RAIN or activating the mammalian caregiving system when you are tossing and turning can calm the nervous system and halt the downward spiral of anxiety and tension over not being able to sleep.
Movement science. Take advantage of what researchers know about the benefits of exercise on sleep quality. The science part is key here, though. Just getting steps may not help with sleep if getting them is done in a stress state. Doing exercises that are based more on marketing science than movement science is more likely to leave you in pain, also affecting sleep quality.
Moving the way you are designed will make your body feel better now. That allows your body to shed the ‘ready-to-move’ tension that builds up from the stress state.
One of the most powerful, yet underutilized, ways to use exercise, mindfulness and self-kindness for sleep quality is stretching. If that word brings up images of warming up before sports, rethink stretching with a new science-based perspective. Adding mindfulness and self-kindness to stretching the way your body is designed sheds tension, reduces inflammation, and restores connective tissue elasticity. This shift has your body telling your brain it’s time to rest. Mindful stretching before bed is one of the most effective ways to exercise for whole-person energy.
Spirit: The energy that keeps your whole person motivated
Your spirit is the part of you that knows what is most important to you at any given moment. What you know in your spirit is the catalyst for energy. The way you find the energy to do things you enjoy or be with people you love is evidence of this. Let’s tap into this natural source of whole-person energy.
The Power of Core Why
“Discovering the WHY injects passion into our work. This is not a formula for success… it’s a tool to help us achieve long-term, fulfilling success.” Simon Sinek
Simon Sinek popularized finding Your Why for work. His 2009 TED talk is one of the 25 most popular TED talks of all time. In his TED talk, he spelled out with mesmerizing conviction that the companies who clearly convey their Why enjoy success, and the ones who don’t never find satisfying success.
Just do it. Right?
The Nike phrase “Just Do It” leads us to believe we don’t need the why. You know what to do so just get out there and do it. It works for athletes because they already have a clear why—to win. Without the power of your why for doing anything, including exercise, those three words just won’t keep you motivated.
But the Why for being healthy is pretty clear, isn’t it? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be healthy?! But you need something deeper than ‘be healthy’ to unleash your natural motivation. It comes down to what it means for you personally to thrive. That is something only you know and it’s as unique as you are.
Getting to the level of Why that will keep you sustainably motivated takes a bit of digging. This is why I call it your Core Why.
Your Core Why
This is a word, image or statement that clarifies your why for making something a habit. It ensures your brain and body are working together.
Your Core Why is informed by
- Your passions: what is most important for you to be able to do in life right now. It’s the people you want to be with and activities that bring you joy.
- Your strengths: knowing what skills and abilities you have inside that you can leverage. For example, you might be good at planning and organizing, or maybe creativity and spontaneity is your strength.
- Your purpose: what you want to put out into the world, whether it is for your family, friends, vocation or something on the grand scale like universe.
Investing some energy in clarifying your Core Why is a declaration that you will not settle for just going through life without really living. It’s a way of saying, “I’m not willing to put my life on hold until I reach my goal, I want to be well now!”
Use mindful, kind exercise to find your Core Why
Use mindfulness to simply notice what word gives you that spark. See this as an act of self-kindness, because you are getting to know yourself better. And because your brain works better after you move the way your body is designed, do this after moving well. Dance to your favorite song, take a walk in nature, do some mindful stretching or strength exercises. It only takes about 10 minutes to activate those ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals. This is meant to be energizing so keep it light and easy.
Keep in mind your Core Why can change, because life is change. When it no longer gives you a spark of energy, you know it’s time to revisit your Core Why. The key is using that inner energy that comes from what only you know inside as your guide to thrive!
Summary for Energy through Whole-person Health
There are five factors that boost or drain your energy: stress, stamina, sustenance, sleep, and spirit. When your energy comes from whole-person health, it is balanced, directable, and usable. There are three key skills for whole-person health: mindfulness, self-kindness, and movement science. These three whole-person skills to give you more energy by aligning with the way you are designed to thrive.
- Pontzer, Herman. Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and the Evolutionary Biology of Energy Balance. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: July 2015 – Volume 43 – Issue 3 – p 110-116
- Chu B, Marwaha K, Sanvictores T, et al. Physiology, Stress Reaction. [Updated 2021 Sep 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan
- Depner CM, Stothard ER, Wright KP Jr. Metabolic consequences of sleep and circadian disorders. Curr Diab Rep. 2014 Jul;14(7):507.
- Rusch HL, Rosario M, Levison LM, Olivera A, Livingston WS, Wu T, Gill JM. The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2019 Jun;1445(1):5-16.
- Kim C, Ko H. The impact of self-compassion on mental health, sleep, quality of life and life satisfaction among older adults. Geriatr Nurs. 2018 Nov;39(6):623-628.
- Kelley GA, Kelley KS. Exercise and sleep: a systematic review of previous meta-analyses. J Evid Based Med. 2017 Feb;10(1):26-36