Energy Optimization

Energy Optimization

Imagine what would happen if we considered our bodies as energy centers that need to be maintained, managed, and fueled on a regular basis in order to better enjoy and succeed at what we care about most. Research suggests that three “health” behaviors that health professionals traditionally cite as tools for preventing disease and reducing obesity—sleep, movement, and healthy eating—are also powerful ways of optimizing daily energy and deepening our sense of well-being.

To learn more:

Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz. (2003) The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal.

Sleep Is Your Friend

The single best predictor of daytime performance is the quality of the previous night’s sleep. Here’s what recent research shows:

  • Sleep is a central component of stress restoration—it repairs cellular damage and helps return us to baseline levels of physiological activity.
  • Naturally occurring poor sleep appears to have both an immediate and a cumulative effect on cognitive, affective, and physiological responses to stress.
  • Poor sleep is associated with increased health care use, work absenteeism, and reduced work productivity, together with a growing list of adverse health outcomes—including immune functioning, susceptibility to infectious disease, metabolic syndrome, inflammation, and coronary artery calcification.
  • Recent studies indicate that poor sleep both stems from and in turn disrupts other stress processes in a feed-forward fashion.
  • Even minor sleep restriction in normal sleepers has a cumulative negative effect on executive functioning.
  • When people lose sleep, they tend to eat more and gain weight.
  • The negative effects of sleep disruption may be even more pronounced in older adults and individuals with existing sleep disorders.


Paula G. Williams et al. (2013) “The Effects of Poor Sleep on Cognitive, Affective, and Physiological Responses to a Laboratory Stressor.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine (46):40-51.

Kathi L. Heffner. (2013) “Nighttime Sleep and Daytime Stress—Tangled Bedfellows: A Comment on Williams et al.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine (46):7-8.

Stephanie M. Greer, et al. (2013) “The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Food Desire in the Human Brain.” Nature Communications (4):1–7.


A growing body of research suggests we don’t need to carve out 30 minutes for a run in order to boost daily energy and a sense of well-being—that by simply reducing the time we spend sitting, we gain physiological health benefits. If we get up from our desks and move, we can also generate energy and well-being. That boost might grow exponentially if we were to combine such movement with being outside in nature. Studies by Rachel and Steven Kaplan of the U-M School of Natural Resources show that when we spend time in the natural environment, mental fatigue is reduced, and the vital bodily resources that have been depleted by stress are replenished. So moving our bodies outdoors might offer multiple benefits for mood and energy. What’s the takeaway?

Get up from your desk at regular intervals. Take the stairs when possible. Walk over to speak with your coworker instead of sending an e-mail. Do some jumping jacks. Walk in nature. You may get an energy boost and mood lift like the lift you’d get from a half-hour jog—or a good cup of coffee.

To learn more:

Maher, et al. (2013) “A Daily Analysis of Physical Activity and Satisfaction With Life in Emerging Adults.” Health Psychology (32): 647–656.

Bossmann, et al. (2013) “The Association between Short Periods of Everyday Life Activities and Affective States: A Replication Study Using Ambulatory Assessment.” Frontiers in Psychology (4): 102.

Healthy Diet, Healthy Aging

In his book In Defense of Food, writer Michael Pollan famously advises, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s sound advice, says Ana Baylin, an associate professor of epidemiology at SPH who studies the effect of nutrition and genes on cardiovascular disease. According to current research, the best diet for delaying age-related disease is one low in calories and saturated fat and high in wholegrain cereals, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, and one that maintains a lean body weight.

But it’s not just older adults who need to eat healthily—healthy aging starts in childhood, and even before, in utero. So while it’s never too late to adopt healthy eating habits, it’s best to start early. It’s also critical that public health and health care professionals work with policymakers to eliminate so-called “food deserts” and make healthy foods available to people of all income levels and geographic locations.

Baylin offers these tips for nutritional thriving:

  • The more colorful your diet, the more vital vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients you’re getting.
  • Focus on food, not supplements. Unless a doctor has told you you’re deficient in some essential vitamin or mineral, avoid supplements—get what you need through food.
  • Avoid trans-fatty acids and saturated fatty acids, which are bad for you. Increase your intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which largely come from plants.
  • Avoid processed foods, which are usually loaded with sodium and sugar.
  • Avoid processed foods that are “fortified” with vitamins, micronutrients, antioxidants and the like. You don’t need processed food—you need an apple or an orange.
  • Get kids cooking. We all need to stop depending on pre-packaged processed foods. What kids learn about cooking and eating during childhood creates the foundation of their food attitudes and practices.
  • Lower your sodium intake. As we age, we become more sensitive to salt, and our kidneys may not be able to handle the high levels of sodium that are typically found in processed foods.
  • Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages, one of the biggest contributors to obesity.
  • Call on the food industry to make fresh foods more widely available and to stop supersizing portions.
  • Practice mindful eating. Too often we eat because we’re bored or because it’s a habit, not because we’re hungry. Take time to savor your food.

To learn more:

Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen. (2013) Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School.

Brian Wansink. (2006) Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

Walter C. Willett, MD, with Patrick J. Skerrett. (2005) Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating.

Mollie Katzen and Walter C. Willett, MD. (2007) Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less: A Flexible and Delicious Way to Shrink Your Waist without Going Hungry.


Few older adults care as much about whether they have a “perfect sexual experience” as whether or not they’re regularly in touch with each other. Your skin is the biggest sensual organ on your body, so touching is one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. One way for partners to do this is to get into bed several times a week and spend as little as five minutes together, skin-to-skin, just reconnecting. The experience will trigger bonding and relaxing neurochemicals in the brain. Especially these days, with our mania for living online, skin-to-skin contact literally puts us in touch with our lives—and improves our capacity for wellness.

Orgasm—which can continue well into people’s 90s—releases neurochemicals for bonding, stress reduction, and pleasure in the brain. It’s good for physical health, too, because it contracts the muscles in the reproductive and genital regions, which, like all other muscles, need to be used. Masturbation is also key to healthy sexuality. Whether one is partnered or not, regular masturbation will increase sexual awareness, pleasure, and orgasmic potential. Another key to a healthy sex life for older adults is vitality. There’s a positive correlation between better sex and regular exercise.

—Sallie Foley, Faculty Associate, U-M Center for Sexuality & Health Disparities (SexLab); Director, Sexual Health Certificate Program, U-M School of Social Work; Co-author, with Sally A. Kope and Dennis P. Sugrue (2013), Sex Matters for Women: A Complete Guide to Taking Care of Your Sexual Self (2nd ed.)

Give Yourself a Microbreak

When she teaches workshops and classes on energy management, SPH alumna and mindfulness expert Sandra Finkel, MPH ’88, stresses the importance of the microbreak. “We tend to have lives that are organized more like marathons as opposed to a series of sprints. But we’re better designed to deal with a series of sprints. Microbreaks are a way to revitalize and re-energize.”