From simple lifestyle habits to complex medical problems, why we lack energy can have many causes. In this series, I’m tackling some of the lifestyle factors associated with fatigue that lend themselves to home troubleshooting. This week’s topic is:

Movement: replenishing the energy that stress steals

Stress takes it toll on us in a number of ways, a major one being mental and physical exhaustion. Stress can rob us of the energy we need to do the things we need and want to do, and cause serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression.

One of our best ways to reclaim lost energy from stress is through exercise. This is illustrated in a 2015 article published in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Psychiatry. This 18-month study of individuals diagnosed with stress-related exhaustion found that increasing physical activity reduced symptoms of fatigue, burnout and depression .

Surprisingly, study participants did not need to meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity to report benefits. As long as they regularly increased their physical activity above their pre-treatment baseline,  they reporting feeling more energetic and experiencing a better mood compared to individuals in the study who maintained their sedentary habits.

How much movement do I need to fight stress?

The American College of Sports Medicine’s guideline for cardiorespiratory excise, which was used in the study referenced above, is 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week.  Though remember that even people who didn’t meet this goal still reported significant improvement in their fatigue and burnout. All movement benefits the body and the brain!

Movement is more than just formal exercise. Any activity or movement that engages large muscle groups and raises the heart rate for at least 10 minutes at a time can help fight fatigue. In addition to formal exercise, this can include chores, sports, playing with kids or pets, gardening, physical labor, and walking.

Movement and Exercise guidelines for supporting mental and physical health:

  • 20-50 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 days per week
    • practical definition: you can talk but not sing while moving or exercising at this level
    • max heart-rate: 60-70%


  • 20-60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise 3 days per week
    • practical definition: you can string together 2-3 words  but not talk in full sentences while moving or exercising at this level
    • max heart-rate: 70-80

Max heart-rate is a commonly used measure of physical exertion, representing the upper limit of what a person’s cardiovascular system can handle. The basic formula for calculating your max heart rate is:  220 – (your age), or you can use this calculator.

In addition to the guidelines above, which treat exercise as an event, I also recommend a daily movement habit I call:

The  10 minute walk away from stress

What is a 10 minute walk going to do for stress? Reverse it.

Stress, particularly it’s chemical mediator adrenaline, decreases blood flow to our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain most responsible for critical thinking. This leads us to more easily feel distracted, overwhelmed and prone to short-sighted or bad decision-making.

We can reverse this with 10 minutes of light-moderate exercise, such as walking, which increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex.

Though stress often tricks our mind into thinking we can’t afford to step away from the problem we’re working, the reality is that 10 minute break will reward you with increased energy and motivation, improved concentration and a greater problem-solving capacity.

Words of motivation

As Dr. Ratey, a psychiatrist specializing in how exercise changes the brain, states in his excellent book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain: 

Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize brain function…When people ask me how much exercise they should do for their brain, I tell them the best advice is to get fit and then continue to challenge themselves. The prescription for how to do that will vary from person to person, but the research consistently shows that the more fit you are, the more resilient your brain becomes and bet better it functions both cognitively and psychologically….Does that mean I have to look like an underwear model to enjoy the brain benefits of exercise? Not at all. In fact, many of the most convincing studies use walking as the mode of exercise.

If you are looking for inspiration to start a new exercise practice or revive an old or tired one, I highly recommend reading Spark. It is my go-to reading every time I start to get a little bored with my movement habits or start to be swayed by that voice in my head that tells me I don’t have time for walking, yoga, running or whatever it is that I’m doing to keep my mind and body fit.

Want to know more?

This is the third of a series of blog posts providing the Whole Life Medicine community with reliable information about important health topics. Check back with use for future posts or follow our Facebook page.

About the author: Evaluating causes of fatigue affecting physical and mental health is a specialty of Miranda Marti, ND. For information about scheduling a free 15 minute consult or making an appointment, please contact us or call our front desk at 425-398-9355.