How and Why You Should Exercise When You Lack Energy

As a Health Coach and Fitness Trainer I often hear people say that they would like to start an exercise program or exercise more frequently, but their lack of energy is holding them back. Well, that’s an easy fix, isn’t it? Just get out and move more—won’t that fix your lack of energy? Well, not so fast! Although it is true for some people that the sheer act of moving more will provide an energy increase, unfortunately it’s not universal. Think of it like losing weight, when that one person just drops soda and loses 10 pounds; they make it look and sound so easy. Meanwhile everyone else drops soda, sweets, and bread and can only manage to lose 2 pounds. What gives? 


Since we are all unique, it only makes sense that we should each have unique requirements for how to gain more energy through exercise. Adrenal fatigue, or HPA axis dysregulation as it’s more commonly known, happens to be one of the main reasons why the one-size-fits-all approach to exercise and boundless energy is the wrong kind of approach.


So what do I recommend to get that euphoric energy surge? For starters, I evaluate where a person is. If they already have an exercise routine but are feeling burned out instead of plugged in, then I’m going to modify it. I’m always cognizant of a client’s goals so that we can keep them on track while making changes that will give them the energy they desire. This might be as simple as reducing the amount of running or cardio and upping the weight-bearing, muscle-building component. Many people think they need to spend endless hours working out each week to hit their goals or to maintain what they have earned in the gym. Stepping away from this mentality is by far the best thing they can do for themselves. The constant exercise and lack of variety often backfires, leaving the goals far outside of the person’s reach. Adding in simple restorative walking a few days a week in place of running or cardio can be a great change. Walking in nature is very therapeutic and can provide positive mind-body benefits by helping to regulate and reset the body’s circadian clock.


It’s often this circadian clock that is out of balance, resulting in a lack of energy or inability to attain strength and fitness goals. This is true for those people who already work out, but also for the those who don't currently work out because they lack the energy or drive to do so.


How should someone who wants to start a routine begin? First, as with anything new, please be sure you are cleared to exercise by your health care provider. I would start slow and recommend something simple like walking in nature 2-3 days per week for 10-15 minutes at a time. For 2 weeks evaluate how you felt before and after this change, keeping a journal so that you can see the impact and recognize it instead of relying on recall. From here you can add in more movement, based on feedback provided. This might be more walking, increasing the time in 10-15 minute increments along with how many days per week. I highly stress the importance of walking outside over walking on a treadmill or an indoor track. Just be cognizant of your surroundings and make sure safety is a top priority. Click  here and here to see why you should walk in nature and change your exercise program so that your HPA axis dysregulation doesn't continue to sap your energy and set you up for failure if you’re using the wrong exercise program.


Weight training is a key component to addressing HPA axis dysregulation as well. After you implement a walking routine, it’s time to start addressing weight-bearing movements. I’ve blogged before as to the importance of incorporating weight training for its bone density benefits. Now I want to tell you why it’s important to add the correct type of weight training so that you can get the energy boosting benefits as well. To start, you should first obtain clearance from your health care provider that you are okay to start an exercise program. From here, depending on your experience, we will want to dial back your current regimen or take the necessary steps to start one. In an ideal world I’d suggest that you meet with a qualified personal trainer to show you proper form and put together a program for you. Programming is key when you are looking to gain energy, and starting with appropriate sized weights for your level of experience is important. We also need to focus on the appropriate number of reps. When a person is new to training or looking for muscle hypertrophy (change), they often focus on higher rep ranges—think 12+ and multiple rounds, at a 3-5 range. This can be a proper technique depending on goals, but it won’t help our fatigued client. The focus needs to be on compound movements—think hinge, squat, pull and push movements with reps set at no more than 5 and with only 2-3 rounds at that rep range. The idea is to stimulate the muscle tissue enough to promote change while not causing exhaustion, leaving something in the tank.  However, the weights should be heavy enough, so that getting more than 5 reps would be a challenge after round 2 and definitely after round 3. If we push the higher reps, the likelihoodof fatigue is much greater. From here we want to focus on lifting for only 20-30 minutes at a time.


To recap, someone with fatigue or low energy should start out first with a walking regimen and build up to 3 days or more per week. Once this is well established, the next add-in should be a weight program, using compound movements focusing on low reps and minimal rounds. Re-evaluate after 2 months and see how you are feeling, based on your journal. The next steps would be to stay where you are, based on how you feel, or add in more lifting frequency so you can be at 2-3 times per week.


Fatigue recovery can take many months; don’t push yourself more than is necessary, and allow your body to take the time it needs to re-establish your circadian rhythm.