Fantasy: You downsize your to-do list, ignore your computer and phone, and delegate your responsibilities as a mom, daughter, wife, sister, coworker, or boss.
Reality: You’ve got more to do than ever, with hundreds of e-mails flooding your in-box, homework to help with, carpools to loads of laundry piling up and a new baby and puppy to boot.
Sound familiar? Then maximize your energy level by tweaking your daily habits. This hour-by-hour guide can help you power up your day so you can multitask more efficiently and feel peppier while you’re at it.
7:00am: Embrace the Sunshine
When you wake up in the morning, your circadian rhythm, an alertness cycle, peaks. Still, it generally takes an average of about 25 minutes to go from groggy to fully awake. To speed the process, open the shades and turn on the lights. Sunlight or bright artificial light travels to your brain’s internal clock to trigger alertness. Morning light exposure is especially important, though, because it sets your 24-hour circadian cycle so you’ll be sleepy at bedtime.
Breakfast raises blood sugar (glucose), which fuels your brain and body. However, low-fiber carbs like donuts or a plain bagel can cause glucose to spike, which can make you feel tired. To stabilize that energy-zapping roller coaster, pack a protein punch at breakfast. Healthy, high-protein options include lowfat cottage cheese (11 grams of protein per ½ cup), skim milk (10 grams of protein in one cup) or Greek yogurt (14 grams of protein per six ounce serving).
Keep in mind that kids who eat breakfast can concentrate better and have healthier diets. So emphasize how important breakfast is and be a role model. “If you’re not eating breakfast yourself, it’s going to be hard to get your child to value it,” says Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler.
Caffeine is as potent as breakfast to get you going. According to a recent study in the International Journal of Neuroscience, those who consumed a 440-calorie breakfast or 200 milligrams of caffeine (roughly two cups of coffee) had more mental energy and performed better on two separate computerized cognitive tests than those who didn’t have either. But don’t gulp down your daily dose in one sitting. A study involving U.S. Navy Seals found that an average of 300 mg of caffeine (equivalent to three cups of coffee) consumed throughout the day is optimal for mental and physical performance. Besides boosting brain power and memory, caffeine makes you feel more vigorous and improves mood, says Harris R. Lieberman, Ph.D., a research psychologist with the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts.
10:00am-Noon: Tackle Big Tasks
All morning, your circadian cycle is on the rise, so take advantage of your natural alertness and tackle your most mentally-challenging projects before lunch, whether it’s organizing your child’s toy room or doing a first draft of a report at work. Need a motivation lift? Get another 100-mg hit of caffeine or head to a window or a bright light. Studies show that even just 50 seconds of light exposure throughout the day can jolt your brain and make you feel more attentive.
Noon: Protein & High-Fiber Lunch
Your goal is to keep your blood sugar constant. So it’s time to eat again, especially if it has been at least three hours since your last meal. For lunch, think vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, fresh fruit, and a small amount of healthy fat. Need ideas?
• Sliced turkey on whole-grain bread with a smear of mayo and a pear with a glass of skim milk.
• Whole-grain crackers, baby carrots, ½ cup hummus and an orange.
• A whole-grain roll, 1 cup lentil soup, grape tomatoes and a peach.
Don’t skip lunch no matter how busy you are taking care of everybody else.
1:00-3:00pm: Nap or Caffeine
This is the time of day when your circadian rhythm will naturally dip whether you eat or not so you’ll feel a natural drop in alertness. “The need for a short nap is actually part of our hardwiring,” says Dr. Alejandro Chediak, Medical Director of the Miami Sleep Disorders Center. So nab at least 20 minutes of shut-eye now if you can. When your kids go down for their nap, take their cues and recharge too.
If napping isn’t an option, a 100-mg caffeinated beverage like a cup of coffee can help you power through the slump, which will be stronger if you’re sleep deprived. Caffeine generally takes eight to 12 hours to get out of your system, so cut yourself off after this so it doesn’t disrupt your sleep later. If you still feel caffeinated at bedtime, push up your last caffeine hit to noon. Blood levels of caffeine peak about 30 to 45 minutes after you’ve consumed it. Another option: Light exposure (again) or physical activity. At any time of the day, exercise will pep you up because it increases your body temperature and the release of epinephrine, the adrenaline level in your brain. Even a walk around the block with your kids or a few on-the-spot push-ups can help.
By now, your circadian cycle is rising again so now’s the time to dive back in to mentally-demanding projects if you haven’t already. Need a motivation boost? Try drinking some water. Mild dehydration can sour your mood and contribute to fatigue and confusion, according to a recent study in Perceptual and Motor Skills. “Even if you’re just sitting at your desk and feeling a little droopy, drinking a glass of water couldn’t hurt,” says Kristen D’Anci, Ph.D., research associate in the psychology department at Tufts University, the study’s lead researcher. In general, women need 2.7 liters (roughly 11 cups) of fluid daily, which you can get by consuming anything watery, including coffee, soup, oranges and watermelon. You’re drinking enough to optimize your energy level if your urine is pale or clear.
To help yourself power through the rest of the afternoon, keep a bottle of rosemary essential oil handy and give it a sniff. In a recent study in the International Journal of Neuroscience, subjects who sniffed a cotton ball doused with the essential oil reported feeling more alert with corresponding brain activity to back it up. “What you smell goes directly to the brain so you get an immediate effect,” says Miguel A. Diego, Ph.D., the study’s lead researcher at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Peppermint and eucalyptus essential oils may be equally as effective. The purest essentials oils (available at health food stores) have the most potent effect so buy the most concentrated you can find, he advises.
A vigorous workout will initially make you tired because it depletes glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrate in your muscles and the liver, and muscles require energy for repair. “But in the long run, as you build up more muscle and stamina, exercise gives you more energy,” says Susan Roberts, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the USDA Nutrition Center at Tufts University in Boston and author of The “I” Diet. Ideally, it’s best to get a major fitness fix in this time window—four to six hours before going to bed. “Falling asleep is easier when your body is internally going from warm to cold. That happens about four to six hours after exercise,” Dr. Chediak says.
6:30-7:30pm: Dinner Time
Eating dinner now is important because you’ve just exercised. “Eating within 30 minutes of working out helps your muscles refuel and repair so you won’t feel depleted the next day,” says Amanda Carlson, M.S., R.D., director of nutrition and research at Athlete’s Performance in Phoenix. It also ensures that you won’t go to bed on a full stomach, which can interfere with a good night’s sleep—the ultimate fatigue fighter.
7:30-9:00pm: Take a Shower
Now, after the kids are in bed, is the perfect time for a hot shower or bath. Like exercise, hot water raises your body temperature. As it falls, you’ll feel sleepier so you’ll be primed to hit the sack in an hour or so. On the other hand, if you need to burn the midnight oil, take a cold shower. “It gets you going because cold water causes your brain to release epinephrine, which increases vigilance,” says Kingman P. Strohl, M.D., director of the Center for Sleep Disorders Research at the Louis Stoke Cleveland DVA Medical Center. A study of 149 resident physicians found that showering was one of the main strategies they used to cope with on-the-job fatigue.
By around 9:30pm, your circadian drive plummets and the pressure to sleep, which builds up the longer you’re awake, is strong. “Even just a single night of disrupted sleep or a few hours of chronic sleep loss each night can influence how vigorous and how alert you feel the next day,” Dr. Lieberman says. Aim for seven to nine hours of solid shut-eye each night. Seem impossible when you’ve got little kids? Try moving your bedtime. A recent study in the journal Sleep suggests that you can get in the extra energizing sleep your brain craves by simply turning off the TV 40 to 78 minutes earlier.
Sandra Gordon writes about health, nutrition and parenting for websites and national magazines. Find her at www.sandrajgordon.com.