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How to Beat the Afternoon Slump

Tired woman holding a yellow cup of coffee

Although the concept is counterintuitive, exercising can give you more energy. Our natural circadian rhythm responds to the afternoon hours with increased sleepiness and decreased level of alertness for a number of reasons, primarily having to do with core body temperature.

In order to enter into the deepest stages of sleep, our body temperature has to decrease slightly as this triggers the release of melatonin, the hormone that controls the sleep/wake cycle. 

After the noon hour, it’s been shown the same process occurs, albeit on a less dramatic scale.Long story short, hormonal changes during the afternoon cause the afternoon slump, and a drop in body temperature is a key trigger. 

Why Does Exercise Perk Us Up?

Exercise gets the blood flowing and raises the body temperature, thus preventing excessive release of melatonin. Furthermore, moving around improves the delivery of oxygen throughout the body, initiating cellular respiration. Without transporting you back to 10th grade biology class, the process ends in the release of energy. 

All of these responses have a two-fold positive impact on your day. For starters, you’ll be perked up when you need to be. To seal the deal, the circadian rhythm is more effectively regulated to better ensure restful, undisturbed sleep at the right time. 

How Long Do You Need to Move Around to Experience the Benefit?

If You’re Short on Time….

The length of time you need to exercise to experience an afternoon boost and get through the rest of your day is relative to your intensity. High intensity interval training you can do at home or in the office is a fantastic solution for a lunch break scenario where you need to get back to work soon. This type of training involves bursts of exercise at full effort followed by short breaks. 

A popular interval ratio known as Tabata regulates 20 seconds of work followed by a 10 second break nonstop for a total of four minutes. This provides a quick way to get an endorphin release that will leave you feeling energized and motivated for hours. 

Men doing tabata workout

If You Have 45-Minutes to an Hour or More…

Not everyone enjoys high intensity exercise. For those who suffer with various cardiac issues or some pregnant women, it can even be dangerous. If this sounds like you, steady-state cardio is a better way to stave off that afternoon nap. 

Aim for a brisk walk, light jog, bike ride, swimming, or other form of cardio you enjoy for at least 45 minutes. Keep it at a pace at which you could carry on a limited conversation without feeling overwhelmed. 


Strength Training vs Cardio 

Strength training is incredibly important when it comes to a well balanced exercise routine.But when it comes to overcoming the afternoon slump, there are a couple of reasons why a cardio session is your best bet. 

First off, the hormonal levels you need in order to get the most out of pumping iron are most optimal during the early evening hours. You’re also more likely to be properly fueled at this time, and have a higher body which improves performance. 

Cardio on the other hand, is best done earlier in the day due to its metabolism-booting and circadian regulation effect. In fact, try working out before you get your day started as this can work to prevent the afternoon slump from impacting your day in the first place. (For even more information on how the time of day impacts your training regimen, performance, and energy levels, I have written a helpful article that goes into greater detail). 


Fueling for Success

The midday slump happens right around lunchtime; however, the food you eat has far less to do with that tired feeling than the physiological components at play during this time of day. Therefore, when it comes to fueling for your afternoon sweat session, what should be of concern is the timing of your consumption relative to portion size rather than worrying about eating foods that may induce sleep like turkey that’s high in tryptophan. Eating after exercise is typically best, and we’ll break down the reasons why in a moment. 

However, if you prefer or your schedule dictates you need to eat before working out, follow these guidelines:

  • If you’ve just eaten a large meal, wait at least two hours before exercising to avoid stomach upset and decreased performance. 
  • If you had a light snack, wait about a half-hour before your workout. 

Now to address why I recommend the post-workout meal or snack. Not only do you avoid the potential negative effects of exercising too soon after a meal, but you will be better able to eat the right foods for proper recovery.

Just as a pregnant woman has cravings when her body indicates it needs a particular nutrient, studies have shown the brain is more attuned to its needs after exercise, improving the urge to make more nutritious food choices. 

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