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Walking Off Work Fatigue

Exercising to feel more energized may be counterintuitive—but it works

The woman who works as a health aide at the home of a neighbor stopped me in the lobby of our building. “When you have time,” she said, “could I ask your advice about how to lose weight? I am approaching sixty, and even though I don’t think I am overeating, I know I am overweight. My problem isn’t eating too much. I don’t. I think the problem is that I don’t do any exercise.”

I told her I assumed she must get plenty of exercise in her job, as her client is unable to walk without help. But no, there was another aide to assist the patient with activities that required physical exertion.

“But I am on my feet most of the day, and I feel really tired when I get home. Some days when the traffic is bad I’m not home until almost 8. All I want to do is fix some supper and then lie down on the couch and turn on the TV. How can I exercise if I feel like that?” she asked.

Mental fatigue after a day at work often prevents exercising

Betty, not her real name, is typical of many whose jobs are not physically demanding, but require some physical activity such as standing, walking, or carrying. In addition, like so many jobs, this one carried a fair degree of mental stress, as the person she worked for had memory problems, required continual help in carrying out basic tasks, and had trouble communicating. Betty told me that she thought her mental exhaustion was as much of an obstacle in preventing her from exercising as physical tiredness. And the self-diagnosis is probably accurate. Many studies have looked at the impact of workplace stress on subsequent fatigue and after-work exercise.

Research shows that regular exercise can reduce stress and increase well-being

Indeed, studies have been carried out to see whether exercise might actually reduce workplace stress. In one study, inactive female and male volunteers ranging in age from 19 to 48 were put through a 4-week exercise program using both cardiovascular and muscular-resistance type exercise. Both exercise programs significantly reduced stress and contributed to a general sense of well-being.  

In another study, workplace fatigue also improved in healthy adults who participated in six weeks of exercise training at a low or moderate intensity. The effect of the exercise was to reduce fatigue and increase energy. 

Even though Betty mentioned that there was a community center near her home where she could take exercise classes, including yoga for a minimal cost, she was unwilling to commit herself. “I am not sure how much time or energy I have for a class, to be honest,” she said. “Why should I start something that I might drop?” 

Be willing 

But she was willing to walk when she arrived home. Her residential neighborhood had sidewalks and very little traffic, and daylight savings time left an hour of daylight for her walk after she arrived home. But she was still skeptical as to whether she would.

“Too bad you don’t have a dog,” I said. “Then you would have to walk when you come home.”

“Oh but I do. I have two dogs but they only go out in my backyard. I never walk them. And they are getting rather pudgy, like me,” she laughed. 

Start slowly and build gradually 

I suggested that for the first two or three weeks, she walk only for 10 to 15 minutes or even less if she did not have the time or energy for a longer walk (with the dogs). 

“The more you walk, the stronger you will be, and pretty soon you will spontaneously find yourself walking longer and probably faster,” I assured her. 

Exercising often boosts energy

Sometimes it is hard to convince ourselves that engaging in some physical activity can make us more, not less, energetic. Mental fatigue can sometimes make our bodies feel as if they can’t move, as if heavy weights are holding down our arms and legs. This seems especially true when the stress of a difficult commute is added to the stress of the workday. But paradoxical as it seems, moving, actually any kind of physical activity, lightens the stress and gives us a surge of energy. Perhaps it is increasing blood flow through our brain and other organs. Perhaps it is the diversion of a walk, a yoga class, or bike ride or swim that makes us concentrate more on our breathing and moving our arms and legs, rather than the problems we may have been thinking about before starting the exercise. 

One friend told me she runs while listening to music or an audio book when she gets home from work. Another goes for a swim. Both said that they disappear mentally into their exercise, and feel renewed and restored when they finish.

Betty started walking with her dogs and found many of her neighbors doing the same at the end of the work day. She told me that now she can’t stop because her dogs expect the walk and she looks forward to the company of other dog owners. And she has lost some weight. 

You can do it!

Avoiding the couch when arriving home tired and stressed out is not easy, because it is hard to believe that working out or walking or some other form of exercise will increase energy and decrease stress. The only way to be convinced is to do it. 

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