There is nothing like sitting still to make you feel exhausted. Long plane trips are particularly notorious for leaving the body feeling leaden and heavy, and several hours at a conference table or computer station can have the same effect. One undervalued culprit in producing sitting exhaustion, however, is being in the car and stuck in traffic. Perhaps I am writing this due to a recent six-mile trip that took over 45 minutes due to traffic lights, road construction and a road with an entire lane of double-parked delivery vans. It was one of those days devoted to procrastinated tasks requiring flitting from place to place in a car because the distances were too great to walk. When my errands were completed and I was home again, my body felt stiff and fatigued. "Good grief," I asked myself, "Why am I so tired? I was only sitting in a car for a couple of hours."
There are probably good reasons, based on exercise physiology, why sitting in any position for a length of time leaves the body feeling so tired. Certainly the cramped position of an airplane seat or a driver's seat prevents normal stretching and contracting of leg and foot muscles. The tension of maneuvering around police barricades in traffic or of gripping a hand rest in case the plane should fall from the sky must add to the muscle fatigue we feel when the trip is over. Although the oft-repeated statement, "I am so tired because I have been running around all day doing errands," doesn't make physiological sense, it does ring true for anyone who has to drive for a few hours in congested traffic and deal with car pool lines, indoor parking garages and strip malls. No matter what the car make or comfort level of the seat, this type of stop-and-go driving offers little opportunity to move except when out of the car.
The temptation to give in to the feeling of after-errand fatigue by lying down was great, and had my dog not needed a walk, the recliner might have received my attention. But of course once I was running after the dog, who was running after a squirrel, I immediately felt better. What my cramped legs needed was motion. The increased blood flow went not only to my muscles but also my brain, so that within a few minutes (after the squirrel was up the tree and dog panting underneath) I felt alert and full of energy.
We are told to "listen to our bodies" when deciding when to rest or sleep or eat. Sometimes, though, our bodies give us the wrong messages or we don't interpret them correctly. My body seemed to be saying that my exhaustion required my becoming even more inert than I was in the car. But my body's message should have been this: Start moving and your energy will return.
Obviously, there are many times when being tired should not be responded to with exercise. Being ill with an infectious disease, feeling exhausted from strenuous physical activity, recovering from surgery or feeling wiped out from a lack of sleep require rest, not an hour in a spin class. But sometimes what we believe is physical fatigue is really mental or emotional fatigue.
Several of my weight-loss clients have been elementary school teachers, and they all complained of feeling so tired when they got home that it was all they could do to change out of their school clothes into something more comfortable before laying on the sofa. I assumed that they were running around after the students most of the day but no, they spent much of the school day sitting down or, at most, walking around the classroom. What they were claiming as physical fatigue was really mental fatigue. But you don't have to be teaching a class of third graders to feel mentally drained by the end of the afternoon. All of us have experienced a deadening of energy after a strenuous mental task, be it writing a brief or, in my case, balancing my checkbook.
Emotional fatigue may also feel the same way. Stress saps energy the way sand soaks up water. Perhaps it is caused by adrenaline leaving your system as the stress recedes and/or the other neurochemicals in the body that come into play when we are upset. No one has been able to pinpoint exactly what happens in the brain and bloodstream to cause post-stress fatigue, but no one has to be convinced that it happens.
Dragging your wiped-out body to a gym and onto an exercise bike or yoga mat may seem hopeless, but it is probably the best way to bring energy back to your mood and muscles. The increased blood flow that accompanies physical activity will make your muscles feel supple, rather than like petrified wood. Plus, as its oxygen content streams through your brain, the blood will feel like fresh air blowing away your mental tiredness. No time? Take ten. Your increased vigor will make it worthwhile.