Tired? 4 simple ways to boost energy

Matthew Solan

Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

When I’m dragging and feeling tired during the occasional low-energy day, my go-to elixir is an extra cup (or two or three) of black French press coffee. It gives my body and brain a needed jolt, but it may not help where I need it the most: my cells.

The cellular basis of being tired

What we call “energy” is actually a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), produced by tiny cellular structures called mitochondria. ATP’s job is to store energy and then deliver that energy to cells in other parts of the body. However, as you grow older, your body has fewer mitochondria. “If you feel you don’t have enough energy, it can be because your body has problems producing enough ATP and thus providing cells with enough energy,” says Dr. Anthony Komaroff, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. You may not be able to overcome all aspects of age-related energy loss, but there are ways to help your body produce more ATP and replenish dwindling energy levels. The most common strategies revolve around three basic concepts: diet, exercise, and sleep.

Diet. Boost your ATP with fatty acids and protein from lean meats like chicken and turkey, fatty fish like salmon and tuna, and nuts. While eating large amounts can feed your body more material for ATP, it also increases your risk for weight gain, which can lower energy levels. “The excess pounds mean your body has to work harder to move, so you use up more ATP,” says Dr. Komaroff. When lack of energy is an issue, it’s better to eat small meals and snacks every few hours than three large meals a day, according to Dr. Komaroff. “Your brain has very few energy reserves of its own and needs a steady supply of nutrients,” he says. “Also, large meals cause insulin levels to spike, which then drops your blood sugar rapidly, causing the sensation of fatigue.”

Drink enough water. If your body is short on fluids, one of the first signs is a feeling of fatigue. Although individual needs vary, the Institute of Medicine recommends men should aim for about 15 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids per day, and women about 12 cups (2.7 liters). Besides water and beverages like coffee, tea, and juices, you can also get your fluids from liquid-heavy fruits and vegetables that are up to 90% water, such as cucumbers, zucchini, squash, strawberries, citrus fruit, and melons.

Get plenty of sleep. Research suggests that healthy sleep can increase ATP levels. ATP levels surge in the initial hours of sleep, especially in key brain regions that are active during waking hours. Talk with your doctor if you have problems sleeping through the night.

Stick to an exercise routine. Exercise can boost energy levels by raising energy-promoting neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which is why you feel so good after a workout. Exercise also makes muscles stronger and more efficient, so they need less energy, and therefore conserve ATP. It doesn’t really matter what kind of exercise you do, but consistency is key. Some research has suggested that as little as 20 minutes of low-to-moderate aerobic activity, three days a week, can help sedentary people feel more energized.

When being tired warrants a visit to your doctor

You should see your doctor if you experience a prolonged bout of low energy, as it can be an early warning of a serious illness. “Unusual fatigue is often the first major red flag that something is wrong,” says Dr. Komaroff. Lack of energy is a typical symptom for most major diseases, like heart disease, many types of cancer, autoimmune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, and anemia (too few red blood cells). Fatigue also is a common sign of depression and anxiety. And fatigue is a side effect of some medications.

Related Information: Boosting Your Energy


  1. V.Prabhakaran, MD., FRCPC.

    My younger brother(An Oncologist) says that I shuffle when I am near the end of my game(9 holes of golf ) where I have walked. I am 73. I do not believe that I shuffle. Can there be any truth to what he says. He is around 70. I know of only Parkinsons where people shuffle & have a pin rolling movemnet of their hands. I had a case like this for my major many moons ago when I finished my MD in Bangalore, India. I do not “pin roll” with my fingers.
    I do feel rather tired, most of the time, after shingles the winter of 2017

  2. laitenben

    great advice, thanks.

  3. Ray

    These are more questions than comments (would much appreciate your response Matthew!):
    1) My mitochondrial DNA goes back to a woman who lived 8500 years ago, and 3000 years ago it was carried from the Central Asian Altay Mountains westward into Europe. Let’s say that my mitochondria is not optimal in delivering energy to my body (I have wondered), did all these DNA woman ancestors of mine me have the same issue, was their energy delivery system the SAME because they had the same mitochondrial DNA?
    2) You don’t talk about low blood pressure (no one does, and mine is very low!) as an issue with energy level. I once had a physician explain to me that folks with low blood pressure need more rest, and deal with other unique issues like sensitivity to temperature extremes. Low blood pressure is a blessing for many reasons, but I think it makes me quite sluggish.

  4. Karlin Marsh

    My problem is periodic bouts of insomnia. I may have a good nights sleep and feel great next day. But this is often followed by a night of poor or sometimes no sleep. Exercise is a problem because of age and pain from spine surgery. The more I exercise, the worse the pain.

  5. Steve

    My fatigue was caused by sleep apnea… although it took a while to diagnose. Was told to do a sleep study, which confirmed. Now I use a CPAP and I feel so much better.

  6. Ruth Emerson

    I am very tired of being told I need 2,3, or 4 quarts of water a day. This is a health myth, started in the late 1970’s with misinterpretation of some dietary guidelines that came out of Dartmouth. The guideline said “people need about 2 liters (~2 quarts) of water a day, and most of that can be obtained from food.” The last phrase was truncated, and now we have this persistent myth about 2+ quarts of water.

    One reference here; there are many more, if you search.
    “Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.” Really? Is there scientific evidence for “8 × 8”? Heinz Valtin,
    American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology Published 1 November 2002 Vol. 283 no. 5, R993-R1004 DOI: 10.1152/ajpregu.00365.2002

  7. James

    I have tried all of these four tips, but uptil now i am not successful, can you guide how many days or months should i keep on?

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