Q. I am debating taking on the leadership role of a major nonprofit organization. At age 78, my concern is if I will have enough energy to do the job. I know I am less energetic today than I was five years ago. What should I consider before committing to such an undertaking? And would you also address the subject of energy. Thank you. NS
“I’m so old I don’t buy green bananas…” is one philosophy of life attributed to the famous football coach and hall of famer Lou Holtz at age 75.
If we apply that to our everyday lives, perhaps we would take no risks and do nothing but sit. Yet, taking on a major project in later life does require some consideration.
Here’s a little historical background on fatigue: It was not always considered a negative. In medieval times, it was a positive sign, indicating that a person worked hard enough to reach the point of needing to rest. That perspective changed during the industrialization period when fatigue was a negative as industryed its workers to have endless demand. Further interest in fatigue grew during World War I, when the military wanted to increase productivity of munition factories. Subsequently the interest moved from physical to mental fatigue as the military had more tasks that required sustained mental alertness such as piloting planes and operating radar installations.
Although not inevitable, fatigue is a common complaint among older adults. For many, the gradual loss of energy is considered one of the unpleasant side effects of aging. It is not an issue just for older people. For example, a 30-year-old may complain that he cannot keep up with his younger soccer players. Middle-aged folks may report exhaustion because of the work load, the pandemic, raising teenagers and caring for aging parents.
Yet, in later life we may have a greater concern, not knowing if this feeling is a life sentence or, in fact, we can do something about it. So, what do we know? As we age, cells change that affects our muscles causing loss of muscle mass, strength and flexibility. Researchers estimate that, generally, those between ages 60 and 70 lose 12 percent of their muscle mass; those over 80 lose about 30 percent.
Other cellular changes limit the heart’s pumping ability that, in turn, reduces the flow of oxygen-rich blood that provides energy to the cells. That oxygen-rich blood goes to our brain, which affects cognitive abilities and much more.
Besides cellular changes, we may feel less energetic with age because of changes in our circadian rhythms as noted in the Harvard Business Review article “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time.” These rhythms are “a natural cycle of physical, mental and behavior changes the body goes through in a 24-hour period” as defined by the National Institute of Medical Sciences.
They often make us fall asleep early and wake up early, disturbing natural sleep rhythms. Furthermore, older people spend less time in deep sleep, which is the most important sleep to restore energy. Having difficulty falling asleep may be due to the decline in the hormone melatonin. Lack of proper rest is considered one of the major causes of fatigue among older adults.
Fortunately, there are some things we can do to boost our energy as we age according to the Harvard report.
Set goals: Write down your priorities and know that you cannot do everything all of the time.
Control stress: Stress is the most common cause of persistent fatigue. Consider stress reducers such as yoga, meditation or tai chi.
Decrease your load: Say “no” to other opportunities and remember that “no” is a complete sentence.
Get regular exercise: This increases blood circulation, reduces stress, improves muscle mass and is energizing.
Improve sleep: Embrace what is considered healthy sleep habits consisting of regular sleep and wake-up time, limit caffeine late in the day, keep the bedroom dark and for sleep only.
Eat for energy: Consider a nutrient-rich diet and avoid quick fixes of candy bars or cookies. Think about eating a few small meals rather than three large ones.
Commune with nature.: Anecdotal evidence suggests that spending time outdoors can be restorative in acting as an energy booster.
Thank you NS for your important question. Consider the importance of that position and organization to you. How will you feel if you turn down the opportunity and what can you do to boost and maintain your energy? Buying green bananas and taking an informed risk might be the right philosophy.
Stay well and know that kindness is everything.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity.