When Your Energy Is Slumping, Is It Better To Nap or Get Moving?

Photo: Getty images/Westend61
Let’s talk about the F word: fatigue. Even before the pandemic, reports of people feeling exhausted were on the rise. This site’s written extensively about the various reasons for why this is—from astrological explanations, to parceling out the difference between being just plain tired and actual fatigue, to the many types of fatigue you may be feeling.

It will come as little surprise to anyone who’s been awake over the past few years that “stress is extremely draining and can lead to fatigue," Shelby Harris, PsyD, sleep-health expert and author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia, previously told Well+Good. But there are other psychological and physiological factors contributing to why you may feel TATT (tired all the time), too, including when you consume caffeine.

Regardless of the reason, there are two common ways to gain (and sustain) more energy in the short- and long-term: through quality Zzzs and physical activity. For the purpose of recharging your internal battery, when it comes to determining whether to sleep or exercise for more energy, it’s less a question of either/or and more a matter of both, according to Todd McGrath, MD, sports medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. But sleep should be your first priority.

Why sleep is more important than exercise for more energy

Simply put: “The body doesn’t function without sleep,” Dr. McGrath says. So if you aren’t getting the recommended hours of shut-eye for whatever phase of life you’re in, no amount of exercise is going to compensate for it. “The benefits of exercise are significantly limited if your body isn’t rested enough to recover from the exercise,” he adds.

So your first step toward upping your energy levels should be taking stock of how much you’re hitting the hay and the quality of sleep you're getting. There are lots of health wearables and apps that can help you track your sleep. But if you prefer not to take technology to bed with you, there are four signs you’re getting a good night’s sleep that you can use to gauge for yourself.

If you’re positive that your sleep is on point, but you’re still feeling tired throughout the day, then exercise is your next best bet for feeling less fatigued, according to Dr. McGrath.

How exercise can boost your energy instantly and overall

The endorphin release from physical activity helps you feel a little bit more awake right away, according to Dr. McGrath. In fact, research shows that quick HIIT workouts can give you the same buzz as a cup of coffee. This is something to keep in mind if you find your energy waning in the afternoon and aren’t trying to consume caffeine—especially if a power nap isn’t possible.

Four-minutes of high-intensity exercise, like one round of this tabata workout, is all it takes: 

“In the long-term, regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise (though resistance exercise is also important), increases cellular metabolism, which helps you process and formulate energy a little better on a molecular system scale, so you feel a little bit more energized throughout the day,” Dr. McGrath says.

An easy way to choose between sleep or exercise for more energy

The best way to tell if sleep or exercise is the antidote to your low energy levels is to determine if you’re getting enough quality Zzzs every night—at least seven hours. If not, it’s better to prioritize snoozing over a morning workout, for example.

If your sleep game is strong, then upping your physical activity (with an emphasis on aerobic exercise) can lead to both immediate and ongoing improvements to your overall energy.

When feeling fatigued or overly tired is more of an “in the moment” issue like an afternoon slump, as opposed to a chronic problem, opting for a four-minute, quick burst of high-intensity exercise can wake you up the same way as a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, power naps (20 minutes) can leave you feeling more alert, focused, and productive, so they’re nothing to sleep on, either.

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