Look at the nutrition panel of a cereal box, an energy drink or even a candy bar, and you get the impression that we humans are flesh-covered automobiles: Fill us up with energy (otherwise known as calories) and we'll cruise along until we hit the next filling station.
But if feeling energetic really is that simple, why do so many of us feel exhausted, stressed and perpetually ready for a nap? Because, explains Robert E. Thayer, Ph.D., a mood scientist and professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, we're going about stoking our energy all wrong. By using food to fix our draggy moods and low energy, we're letting our emotions rule our bodies, and we're getting fatter in the bargain. If we instead find ways to energize ourselves out of low moods that don't involve food, we'll break free of the tyranny of overeating.
Thayer's book, Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood With Food and Exercise, recently released in paperback (Oxford University Press, 2003), presents this startling but ultimately convincing argument: Everything flows from your energy Â— not only better moods and the ability to control overeating, but even your deepest feelings about yourself and your life. "People think of self-esteem as a fixed trait, but in fact it varies all the time, and sophisticated tests have shown that when you're feeling energetic, your good feelings about yourself are much stronger," Thayer says.
Thayer outlines levels of energy from "tense tiredness," the lowest or worst level, in which you are both tired and anxious, to "calm tiredness," defined as fatigue without stress, which can actually be pleasant if it occurs at an appropriate time (for instance, just before bed), to "tense energy," in which you're all revved up and doing lots of work, though not necessarily your best. For Thayer, "calm energy" is the optimum Â— what some people call "flow" or being "in the zone." Calm energy is energy without tension; during this pleasant, productive state, our attention is completely focused.
Tense tiredness is the one to watch out for: Your mood is low, you're stressed and you want both a burst of energy and something that will comfort or soothe you. For many of us, that translates to potato chips, cookies or chocolate. Says Thayer: "We're trying to self-regulate with food, when what would help us is the very thing we feel too tired for: exercise."
Here are six steps that can raise energy and help reduce tension: