It can come, quickly and swiftly, in many forms. Some of us may struggle with it in the morning; others might experience it during a post-lunch slump; more still will feel its force when we arrive home at night and simply want to sit in front of the TV.
This is fatigue. And, while the UAE is undoubtedly a country blessed with highly driven go-getters, anecdotal evidence suggests more and more of us are suffering from such a lack of mental energy.
The intense heat, mega commutes and a hard work culture are all known to suck stamina, while the social scenes in Dubai and Abu Dhabi mean people are not getting enough sleep. The fact that most of us are away from extended family support networks only adds additional stresses that might not exist in other parts of the world.
But is a daily dose of lethargy really the inevitable outcome? Science, increasingly, says not. ‘Fatigue can be an issue in the UAE because life here can be very hectic and, if you don’t respond right, it can leave you devoid of energy,’ says Tim Garrett, MD of Corporate Wellness Co, a professional and personal development training centre in Dubai’s DIFC. ‘But, like stress, this is just our body’s way of telling us that we need to make alterations to our lifestyle.
‘A lot of my clients come to me because they work 11 or 12 hours a day and they are exhausted,’ continues Tim. ‘But I say to them, in many cases, they can carry on working those hours – if that’s what they choose – as long as they take other small steps to help them maintain energy.’
What exactly are those steps? We spoke to fitness gurus and life coaches to find out.
1 Sleep more
It seems so obvious it barely needs repeating. But the importance of a good night’s snooze simply cannot be overestimated, it seems.
If you’re trying to survive on six hours or less a night, there’s a chance you can pull it off and feel fine. Such people are called short sleepers, and are medically proven to be able to function on less shut-eye.
For the rest of us, at least seven, and maybe up to eight, hours a night should be a prerequisite. ‘That’s the amount that allows you to wake up feeling refreshed and able to stay focused during the day,’ writes Dr Helen Driver, specialist at Kingston General Hospital in Canada and widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost sleep researchers.
Study after study has shown that better sleep also boosts memory and learning, improves the autoimmune system and combats depression, all three of which should ultimately keep us feeling more energy-efficient.
Aching body muscles don’t just slow us down physically. They do so mentally too.
Stay sat at your desk all day and the inevitable cramps, stiffness and joint pains – apart from being pretty uncomfortable in their own right – will detrimentally impact our mental agility too.
The solution? Stretching, breathing and regular circuits of the office.
‘By not moving, you restrict blood flow around the body, leading to stress, which, in turn, saps our energy,’ explains Tim Garrett. ‘By stretching – just something very simple like touching your toes – you get the blood flowing again, alleviate tension and stimulate the thyroid gland – one of the body’s main energy producers. It takes just a couple of minutes but the result is far greater productivity.’
3 Have a walk
When we’re feeling sluggish, the last thing we want to do is something physical. But, says Tim, ‘sometimes this is exactly when we should do some exercise’.
Gentle might be the key word here. A hard workout down the gym is fine if that’s your thing, but major exertion isn’t a prerequisite. More relaxed activities – a jog, a stroll or a swim, perhaps – will all equally flood the body with fatigue-destroying endorphins, while also creating something called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that regulates mood and energy use. Indeed, this is just the right season to be doing said physical activities outdoors. It has a double positive: exposure to the sun has been proven to boost happy hormone serotonin.
4 See friends
If you’re the kind of person for whom seeing friends means a late night at a restaurant, playing a competitive game of squash or a day at the beach with all the kids in tow, this may seem like counter-intuitive advice. How can any of those things boost energy?
They can. Honest. Science says so. Seeing loved ones releases the feel-good chemical oxytocin, which promotes sensations of calm and well-being – key killers of lethargy. Indeed, even something as simple as talking for five minutes on the phone has been shown to stimulate a similar reaction.
Carmen Benton, founder of Mindful Ed, a personal development centre in Al Safa, Dubai, says she has long promoted this advice to clients feeling demotivated. ‘It’s common sense,’ she says. ‘Seeing people who make you feel good about yourself creates an energy exchange. It recharges you.’
5 Go green
The positive effects of plants and greenery in helping those suffering with depression have long been advocated by doctors.
But, in a 2009 study by the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, based in California, it was found that nurturing a couple of plants can also increase attentiveness, improve concentration and boost perception.
That’s because they assist in our breathing by creating more oxygen; looking at plants has been found, in a 2009 study by Kansas State University in the US, to reduce blood pressure and feelings of anxiety.
‘I always recommend having a few dotted around the office or home,’ says Carmen. ‘Just looking at them can give you a small mood lift and zip your energy back.’
She’s right too. Putting pot plants at a workstation was found, in research by the University of Michigan, in the US, to boost productivity by 20 per cent.
6 Eat right
Another self-evident tip perhaps. Or maybe not quite. Even a well-balanced meal plan can be improved further if we’re specifically aiming to combat lethargy.
‘The right foods at the right times will absolutely make us more alert and certainly less likely to experience that dreaded post-meal slump,’ says Christopher James Clark, the Dubai-based nutritionist and restaurant advisor behind the award-winning book Nutritional Grail.
Principally, he says, ensuring our diet is rich in fish, includes 100g of protein daily and takes in plenty of leafy greens is the key to feeling wide awake all day. Reducing coffee and sugary snacks – both of which spike our energy and then leave us in a low – will also help.
But going further and introducing certain superfoods will allow us to further maximise our potential. Think oatmeal for breakfast (the carbs provide slowly released body fuel), chia seeds and nuts for a mid-morning snack (the fibre boosts and stabilises energy levels), and sweet potatoes with dinner (the potassium lowers blood pressure, thus reducing fatigue). Bananas, carrots, beans and low-fat yogurt are also recommended.
Whatever the problem, for many life coaches, the answer is always the same: meditate. And, when it comes to fighting fatigue, it seems, this is certainly advice worth listening to. ‘I would recommend sitting for 10 minutes every morning and practising mindfulness,’ says Carmen.
‘Close your eyes and really focus on yourself, on your breathing, on any physical sensations, and just bring your mind completely to rest. What this does is regulate your blood pressure, calm your nervous system and enhance a sense of well-being. When you finish, you are completely focused and ready for the challenges ahead.’
And there’s more. ‘Any time you feel yourself flagging, take a moment to notice smells, sounds, sensations around you,’ advises Carmen. ‘Do it at your office desk if you like. Do it when you go to the bathroom at a restaurant. But this just gives you a moment to clear your mind, de-stress and re-energise.’
8 Don’t rule out a health problem
Generally fatigue is brought on by the lifestyles we lead – but it’s absolutely key to remember this is not always the case.
If you’re sleeping plenty, eating well, exercising enough and doing the things that make you happy but you’re still continually devoid of energy, it might be time to get the opinion of a professional. There’s a possibility you could be suffering from an illness and being washed out is just the most prominent manifestation.
Diabetes, coeliac, glandular fever, depression, an underactive thyroid and anaemia are just some of the nasties that cause fatigue. Recognising the symptoms and catching them early will help you deal with such issues more easily.
‘If you can’t shake it off, you should always see a professional,’ says Carmen. ‘Because the most important thing above all else is to keep yourself well.’