Even if you’re a morning person, you’re probably far from firing on all cylinders when you first open your eyes. “It can take up to two hours to get the brain fully alert,” says Dr. Matthew Edlund, the director of the Gulf Coast Sleep Institute, in Sarasota, Fla., and the author of The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough. One reason you’re lethargic is that your core body temperature has dipped during the night to keep you in deep, restorative slumber. Try these morning energy strategies to get going with a lot less grief.
1. Let in the sun and stretch. Exposure to light stimulates your brain to stop producing melatonin (the hormone that helps induce sleepiness), says Edlund. Light also gets your body out of sleep mode by resetting the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus (a big name for a region about the size of a grain of rice), which controls the body’s circadian rhythms (or 24-hour biological clock). Meanwhile, Edlund says, “the first physical activity of the day raises the body temperature and increases blood flow to your brain.” Open the blinds, then try some stretches in front of the window. (If neighbors live in close range, make sure your pj’s are presentable.)
2. Get moving. A morning workout triggers feel-good endorphins and lowers elevated stress hormones. The effects can last six to eight hours, says Gregory Florez, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, in Salt Lake City: “Morning exercisers tend not to have midmorning slumps and are sharper mentally than if they hadn’t exercised.” You’ll get the most bang for your energy buck, he says, with a workout that includes both cardio and strength training.
3. Look at something you love. Mornings are especially hard because we’re in survival mode, says Jim Loehr, Ed.D., a co-founder of the Human Performance Institute, in Orlando, Fla. We have to meet basic needs, like hunger and thirst, and to the body that feels as if we’re under threat, which saps our energy. Positive emotions, like hope and gratitude, fight that energy drain by counteracting the primal messages that we’re in some kind of danger. Loehr suggests kick-starting those positive emotions by looking at something meaningful: Next to your bed, place a treasured photo, flowers, or anything else you're grateful to see.
4. Shake up your routine. The brain responds to novel experiences by releasing a rush of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, which make you more alert. No need for a morning cliff dive—just take something ordinary and switch it up: If you’re right-handed, use your left hand to brush your teeth.
5. Scent your shower. Pick products with citrus, eucalyptus, or mint. “When you smell these scents, a surge of energy flows through the body, which clears the mind of clutter and gives you a quick lift,” says Ann Marie Chiasson, a Tucson, Ariz.-based integrative-medicine physician. (During med-school exam season, Chiasson would put a few drops of peppermint oil on a Kleenex to sniff for an energy boost.)
6. Edit your closet. If you think just picking an outfit is exhausting, there’s now research to confirm it: In a 2008 study led by the University of Minnesota, students faced with multiple choices had less physical stamina and were more likely to procrastinate. When it comes to choosing what to wear (not to mention making other life decisions), try to limit yourself to fewer than 10 options, says Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Penn.
7. Eat a colorful breakfast. If it takes all your mental firepower just to get the coffee going, then you’re probably in no shape to recall the optimal nutritional breakdown for your morning meal. Kim Walls, a clinical nutritionist in Los Angeles, suggests this easy-to-remember “color code:” Pile your plate with 80 percent colorful, unprocessed foods. The rest of the dish should contain a combination of lean protein and complex, fiber-rich carbohydrates, which are slowly digested and keep the blood sugar steady. There’s a colorful (and energizing) dish for every breakfast personality.