Fight Fatigue with Healthy Habits
Exercise and good sleep hygiene support energy levels.
Written by Melissa Bean Sterzick
An occasional night of poor sleep, a day of feeling fatigued or an afternoon drop in energy are all common experiences for seniors. Fatigue is a normal part of life, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent health issue.
Feeling fatigued can become a vicious cycle, affecting your physical and mental health. Moe Gelbart, PhD, director of behavioral health at Torrance Memorial, says energy and mood go hand in hand.
“Your mood affects fatigue. If someone is depressed and sad, or down and anxious, one of the symptoms is fatigue. If someone is feeling serious fatigue, it will cause them to feel depressed,” he says.
See your primary care physician and do what you can to address the cycle of poor mood and low energy. “Avoid the misuse of alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and the overuse of prescription drugs. Get help if you’re feeling depressed,” Dr. Gelbart says. “Fatigue for a 55-and-up individual can be caused by several things including medical problems and insomnia. Insomnia is a significant factor for the elderly, and it causes fatigue.”
Seniors often nap, Dr. Gelbart says. A short nap is restorative, but after 30 minutes a nap can affect the sleep cycle. Healthy sleep habits overall will prevent fatigue and low mood.
A good sleep environment includes blackout shades, using the bed only for sleep (not for watching TV) and keeping the room cool. Don’t eat heavy foods or consume alcohol or caffeine close to bedtime. Address digital intake by putting away computers, phones and tablets an hour before it’s time to wind down.
Otherwise, understanding energy ebbs and flows and times of rest are part of being human will support positive mood levels. “People are going to be tired, and they need to understand this is part of life,” Dr. Gelbart says. “Accept the fatigue and give yourself rest time. Don’t feel you have to always be doing things or getting things accomplished.
He adds: “Maintaining relationships is also important. If you’re not communicating with people and keeping things inside, I think of it as carrying a lot of weight. You’re burdened, you’re tired, you’re fatigued.”
Depression can cause individuals to overuse alcohol and avoid exercise. Similarly, insomnia and stress can create unhealthy lifestyle patterns. No matter how the patterns begin, they often lead to fatigue, which only exacerbates the problem.
“Get help if you’re feeling depressed. As we get older, we experience different losses and changes,” Dr. Gelbart says. “Seniors have significant life issues. If they don’t want to address them, then they will potentially cause some sadness and depression.”
Yolande Mavity, a physical therapist, geriatric clinical specialist and lead in the outpatient rehabilitation department at Torrance Memorial, says fatigue can arise from many different physical issues. It can be related to nutrients in the blood, a lack of adequate fluids or being out of shape.
“Especially during COVID-19, some of our seniors have not been getting out as much,” she says. “Gyms were closed, and they were not getting enough exercise. Oftentimes we don’t sleep well when we’re not getting enough physical activity.”
For fatigue related to deconditioning, Mavity recommends beginning with light exercise and gradually increasing it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week. That can be divided into 30 minutes per day, five days a week. Mavity says it’s fine to split up the 30 minutes into 10-minute bouts.
She says using a walker is a great idea if it makes an individual safer and able to walk farther. Finding motivation can be as simple as scheduling time to exercise or finding a partner. Getting started can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort. Exercise improves everything from mood to memory.
“Once we stop, it’s easy to stay stopped. But it really makes a big difference in quality of life and how you feel,” Mavity says. “The more you do, the less fatigue you’ll feel. We want people to stay at a pretty good fitness level because it protects the brain from any cognitive deficits. Exercise keeps the brain strong.”
Breathing exercises and meditation apps can help individuals relax and fall asleep more easily. Dr. Gelbart recommends a breathing exercise that starts with a four-count inhale, hold for seven counts and exhale for eight counts.
“First and foremost, if your fatigue seems unusual and has come on quickly, you should schedule a physical with your primary care physician and review your current medications. The best path forward is to take matters into your own hands and ask yourself, ‘How can I improve my general mental and physical health?’”