The gradual loss of energy is one of the most unpleasant side effects of the ageing process. And it can be noticed at any age. Even a 30-year-old may complain that he no longer feels able to keep up with the younger guys at his soccer or boxing club. The middle-aged often say that, sandwiched between dependent parents and demanding teenage children, not to mention the stress of work, they barely have enough energy to get out of bed. While the retired will complain that they feel unable to entertain their grandchildren or enjoy their hobbies. Of course, no one should expect to be rushing around in their 70s like they did in their 20s, and yet the idea that energy levels drop as every year passes, rather like the gasoline dial on a long car journey, is misleading. In fact, many people make radical lifestyle changes in later life and find that they have more energy than ever before.
Hazel Courteney, former health journalist for the London Times, writes that during her career she received tens of thousands of letters on a whole range of subjects but that by far the most common were letters complaining of tiredness. In other words, if you do feel more tired as every year passes, you are not alone.
There are many reasons for this, and it may not be your age. Aside from the obvious drain of children, work etc, your tiredness may be caused by stress, toxicity in the body, or simply excess weight (remember, if you are overweight your body is having to work harder to carry that weight around – just as more energy is used up when you go hiking with a backpack!). A simple lack of sleep may also be to blame. And remember, even if you do go to bed early, that does not mean your sleep is deep and revitalizing. Many people, especially those with lots of worries and inner tension, wake up feeling more tired than when they went to bed. Finally, you may even have an underactive thyroid gland, so if you continue to feel exhausted in spite of positive lifestyle changes, get this checked out.
Perhaps the single most important thing you can do is to change your diet. A cliché it may be, but you really are what you eat. First, cut down on stimulants like coffee, alcohol, refined foods and, above all, sugar. These may give you an initial boost, but it will soon wear off, leaving you hungry for more (do not be surprised if you feel tetchy and irritable once you cut sugar from your diet – you really can have withdrawal symptoms). Not only does sugar create a high and then a low (the famous sugar crash) but it will also deplete your body of vital nutrients like chromium and B-vitamins. And eating heavy meals late at night, especially those full of protein, should also be avoided.
What should you eat then? Foods rich in magnesium and calcium would be a good place to start, so fill your shopping trolley with plenty of cabbage, kale, broccoli, pineapple, papaya, fish, pilchards, almonds, and Brazil nuts. And eat more foods containing B-vitamins, like brown rice, which will help support your nerves (anxiety and stress will soon exhaust you). If you generally feel peckish last thing at night, eat a jacket potato or some thick, vegetable soup. These are more calming and easier on the digestive system. Herbal teas like camomile and liquorice are also great, especially last thing at night.
More generally, it is important to keep control of your blood sugar levels. This is true no matter what your age. People in busy, stressful jobs will often swig fizzy drinks or eat chocolate bars for the little shot of energy it provides. But this is quickly followed by a sugar crash, causing irritability, tiredness, and even depression. So make your meals small, regular, and healthy. It would also be a good idea to keep healthy snacks in the fridge or cupboard for when you get hungry – nuts, dried fruit, or raw mushrooms for example.
In general, it is best to keep supplements to a minimum. As people age, they tend to be prescribed all sorts of pills and liquids by their physician, many of which do little good. So adding yet more is not always a good idea. It should also be emphasized that just because a supplement can be bought in a health food store that does not mean it is healthy and harmless. For example, some herbs and supplements can make anxiety much worse and even cause insomnia.
Stick to supplements that are themselves natural. So, for example, a good quality fish oil capsule every day may help calm your nerves. Turmeric would also be a good idea, since it reduces inflammation. And Siberian ginseng, taken in liquid form, will help support adrenal function.
If you are a believer in supplements and have no problem with taking tablets, you should begin with the B-vitamins. If you must take these in tablet form, make sure you buy a good quality brand. The same goes for a general vitamin and mineral supplement. Co-enzyme Q10 is another supplement proven to increase energy levels. Everyone produces this naturally but, as we age, we produce less. You could also try taking 500mg of calcium and 300mg of magnesium an hour before going to bed – stress and general exhaustion make the body more acidic and these will help re-alkalize your system.
It is never too late to start exercising. If you doubt this, try watching the TED talk “why bodybuilding at age 93 is a great idea” by Charles Eugster. Eugster, a retired dentist from West London, undertook a new fitness regimen in his 80s because, in his words “I wanted more attention from all the pretty young 70-year-olds.” He has since competed in numerous competitions and won many awards.
Of course, you do not need to follow so extreme an example (though it may inspire you). In general, little and often is best. Having said that, there are some who argue that society needs to get tough with ageing people and stop wrapping them in cotton wool. The Dutch professor Rudi Westendorp, for example, an expert on ageing, assures older patients that their bodies are capable of more than they realize. Nevertheless, it is probably best to begin slow and build up. Pilates, T’ai Chi, yoga, or even a simple walk in the country, would be a great place to start.
The mind affects the body and the body affects the mind. If you keep telling yourself that you have no energy and can’t do this or that, do not be surprised if your body responds accordingly. Some people seem to take great pleasure in telling others how awful they feel or how much more energy they had when they were young. This is absurd. If you start to think old you will feel old. Do not say to yourself “well, now I have turned 40 I can no longer do X or Y”. It is as if people imagine that on the morning of their 70th or 80th birthday, they can no longer do what they did the day before. Do not bow to the tyranny of meaningless numbers. If you expect to feel more exhausted at 70 than at 69, then you will.
Finally, you must embrace the time in which you are living. The older people get, the more inclined they are to live in the past, to indulge in mawkish nostalgia, and to convince themselves that everything was better when they were children. Even people in their 40s and 50s do this. Convince yourself of such nonsense and what do you think will happen? Obviously, the present will seem flat, dull, and hardly worth bothering with. And once that happens, your motivation goes, taking your physical energy with it. Instead, remain curious. Don’t tell the younger generation that their music is garbage and that nothing compares to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or the Smiths. Ask them who they’d recommend. Who do they think makes the best music today? And keep up with politics, fashion, scientific advances and so on.
If you wish to boost your energy levels, you must first consider the way you live. What needs to be changed? The key to boosting your energy is improving everything: diet, sleep patterns, exercise regimen, and even outlook. And do not overestimate how healthy you are. People who have tests to reveal their biological age compared to their actual, chronological age, are often disappointed by the results. In other words, no matter how fit you believe yourself to be, there is almost certainly room for improvement.