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Fantasy: You stock up on gift cards for the holidays, let the dust bunnies gather and forget all about cooking, cleaning, decorating, shopping and wrapping. Reality: You’ve got more to do than ever, with hundreds of cards to address and send, cookies to bake, the kids and tons of relatives, friends and teachers to shop for, office parties galore to attend and decorations to hang.
Sound familiar? Then maximize your energy level by tweaking your daily habits. Here are some small changes you can make throughout the day to give you the zing you need to get it all done and get in the spirit.
7 a.m.: Start the day with protein.
Breakfast raises blood sugar (glucose), which fuels your brain and body. But a low-fiber carb-fest of, say, donuts or a plain bagel can cause glucose to spike. A subsequent surge in the hormone insulin will then pull too much glucose into your system. “Glucose peaks and valleys can make you feel tired,” says Douglas J. Paddon-Jones, M.D., a nutrition researcher at the University of Texas in Galveston, TX.
To stabilize that energy-zapping hormonal roller coaster, pack a protein punch at breakfast. In fact, Dr. Paddon-Jones recommends 25 to 30 grams at every meal, in addition to high-fiber carbs like oatmeal and healthy (unsaturated) fats. Easy grab-and-go protein picks include low-fat cottage cheese (11 g of protein/4 oz.), a tall Starbucks nonfat latte or a cup of skim milk (10 g), a Luna bar (8g/bar), low-fat yogurt (7 g/6 oz.), or an egg (6 g).
8 a.m.: Get your first caffeine fix.
Caffeine is as potent as breakfast to rev a morning at the mall. 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. So save your ammunition and have one cup now, and more later, if necessary. Besides boosting brainpower 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 a.m. to 12 p.m.: Tackle A-list to-do tasks.
All morning, your circadian rhythm, an alertness cycle, peaks. Cells in your brain that influence vigilance fire rapidly. “They tell your brain, ‘Get going! Get things done!’” says Alejandro Chediak, M.D., medical director of the Miami Sleep Disorders Center, so take advantage of your natural alertness and tackle your most mentally challenging projects before lunch, whether it’s doing some online shopping and trying to find the best deals or drafting your annual holiday letter to family and friends. Need a motivation lift? 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.
12 p.m. (or so): Time for a power lunch.
Don’t skip lunch no matter how busy you are ticking off your holiday to-do list. 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? How about sliced turkey on whole-grain bread with a smear of mayo and a pear with a glass of skim milk? Or whole-grain crackers, baby carrots, one-half cup hummus and an orange or a whole-grain roll, 1 cup lentil soup, grape tomatoes and a peach.
1 p.m. to 3 p.m.: Nab a short nap or shoppercize
From 1 to 3 p.m., your circadian rhythm will take a 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. Chediak. So nab at least 20 minutes of shut-eye now if you can. Or get some exercise. At any time of the day, physical activity will pep you up because it increases your body temperature and the release of epinephrine, the adrenaline level in your brain.
If you’re trekking through the mall, you’re on the right track. During the holidays, you probably have less time to go to the gym anyway. Shopping is good exercise because you’re walking and carrying packages, which is a version of weight lifting. But you can make it into even more of a workout. After parking her car in the far corner of the parking lot, Linda B. James, the founder and CEO of movercise.com, a fitness routine that teaches people to incorporate more movement into their everyday activities, walks to the door of the mall and back to her car two or three times. “Then, when I finally go into the mall, I walk around the mall about five times before I actually go into a store,” she says. It’s a lot of unnecessary walking, but that’s the point—to foot even more miles on your shopping trips. Wear a pedometer for inspiration and see if you can hit that magical 10,000 steps mark.
James also uses her shopping bags as weights. “I lift my shopping bags a little as I’m carrying them and put them down to build my biceps and triceps,” she says. Similarly, “When you’re at your car, put your packages (or groceries) on the ground. Then do deep-knee bends to pick them up and put them in your trunk. It’s an opportunity to work your thighs,” James says. You can make housework a workout, too. Rev up your routine (and your calorie burn) by exercising while you’re cleaning. “When you’re vacuuming, do lunges,” James says. Take giant steps forward and sink down in the middle, which strengthens your thighs, while pushing the vacuum. When you’re dusting or window washing, switch arms so that both your shoulders and upper arms get the same strength-training benefit. “And when you’re in the kitchen cooking, do standing push-ups off the side of the counter top,” James suggests.
3 p.m.: Take a water break.
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, such as tallying your holiday budget. Need a motivation boost? Try drinking water. Being mildly dehydrated (losing one to two percent of your body weight, which can happen if you go for long periods without drinking) 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 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 and oranges. You’re drinking enough to optimize your energy level if your urine is pale or clear.
4 p.m.: Sniff rosemary.
To help yourself power through the rest of the afternoon of holiday madness, 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 have the most potent effect so buy the most concentrated you can find, he advises. They’re available at health food store and the mind/body section of organic/natural supermarkets.
6:30 to 7:30 p.m.: Dinner time.
Eating dinner about now is important. It 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. More on that in a minute.
7:30 to 9 p.m.: Wind down with a hot bath.
Now, after the kids are in bed, is the perfect time for a hot shower or bath. Hot water raises your body temperature. As it falls, you’ll feel sleepier, so you’ll be primed to hit the hay in an hour or so. On the other hand, if you need a burst of energy to tackle more holiday prep, 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.
9:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.: Get your zzz’s.
By around 9:30 p.m. or so, your circadian drive plummets and the pressure to sleep, which builds up the longer you’ve been awake, is strong. Go with it and go to bed. “Even just a single night of disrupted sleep or a few hours of chronic sleep loss each night can influence how vigorous and alert you feel the next day,” Dr. Lieberman says. Aim for seven to nine hours of solid shut-eye each night. The Energizer bunny runs on batteries. You function best on a good night’s sleep.