Need a boost? Put down the energy drink and go for a walk

by Karen Bowen

Last month, I wrote that Vitamins A, B, C, D and E can help keep your mind functioning well. Outside of eating foods containing these, engaging in some other practices could give you additional short- and long-term benefits.

Let’s say you need an occasional, short-term alertness boost. Using caffeine is an option. Caffeine works by stimulating the central nervous system, heart, muscles, and the centres that control blood pressure. I’m sure you’ve used an occasional strong cup of coffee to wake up. Generally, drinking limited amounts of caffeine in beverages, such as coffee, tea or soft drinks is not harmful.

However, use energy drinks with caution. Along with their high proportion of caffeine, they may also pack a large dose of sugar. So while the caffeine is stimulating, the high sugar content is causing a sugar spike in your body to which your pancreas reacts with burst of insulin, resulting in low blood sugar and a feeling of tiredness, making you crave another energy drink. It’s a vicious circle.

Certainly, habitual consumption of caffeine can lead to addiction. Maybe you’ve felt this yourself. If you miss your usual coffee, you feel irritable, depressed and may even get a headache. Some more serious common side effects of excessive caffeine are: cardiac arrhythmias and palpitations; high blood pressure; insomnia; and anxiety attacks.

One unusual side effect of energy drinks is seizures in people who have no history of epilepsy. These seizures may be triggered by either caffeine or taurine (another common ingredient in energy drinks). This type of seizure most often occurs when a person is sleep deprived.

As a diuretic, caffeine makes your body excrete fluids. High caffeine levels can lead to high fluid loss, resulting in dehydration. Consequently, you may feel tired and unable to think clearly, instead of energetic and alert.

Instead of looking for a quick caffeine fix, consider why you feel tired. You probably are tired. So, consider your life situation. Are you under excessive stress? Overworked? Not sleeping well? Eating poorly? Addicted to caffeine? A long-term solution cannot be bought in a can at the corner store. In fact, if you’ve been running on energy drinks, they are probably part of your problem.

Which brings us to a long-term solution – a change in lifestyle. In particular, say, ‘goodbye’ to crashing in front of the TV every night and say, ‘Hello’ to your new best friend: physical exercise.

Why? Not just for physical fitness, but to whip your mind into shape as well.

When your cardiovascular system is not working well, it affects your memory. Studies show that if you exercise aerobically, you significantly increase the amount of blood that flows to your brain. This leads to better memory.

In a recent study comparing the effects of exercise on mental performance, researchers formed three groups of volunteers, between 55 and 70 years old. Group 1 exercised aerobically by walking three times a week for 45 minutes. Group 2 did easy calisthenics. Group 3 did no exercise. At first all three groups were similar in terms of oxygen consumption, level of physical fitness, memory, and mental dexterity.

However, by the end of the study everything had changed. The oxygen consumption of the people in the aerobics group was considerably higher than that of the other two groups. Over a four-month period, the mean scores for the aerobics group improved in five out of seven tests for memory and mental dexterity, while the other two showed no major change.

On top of this, exercising makes you feel better. Exercise triggers your body’s production of endorphins. These mood-boosting chemicals help keep your attitude on track. Exercise can also make your brain’s frontal lobes work harder, releasing more serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine and making you feel happier.

During exercise, your brain also sends out brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Not only does BDNF improve your mood, its main function is to help brain cells survive longer. This may explain why exercise appears to slow the progression of dementia.

With these facts in mind, should you take out a gym membership? Considering a trucker’s schedule, it’s probably not feasible.

For sure, running, lifting weights, playing sports or taking a fitness class on a regular basis would be ideal. But really, anything that gets your heart pumping a little faster will help: washing your rig, parking a little farther away from the motel, or even walking around the block before you check in for the night.

The most important point of exercise is that it’s not enough to think about it. You have to do it. Start out with 10 minutes a day and work yourself up to 30 minutes a day, three to five times a week. Then, stick to it.

Remember, to keep your mind working well, it’s more than the thought that counts.

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