How to Get More Energy

“Aerobic exercise in particular not only turns on genes linked to longevity, but also targets the BDNF gene, the brain’s ‘growth hormone.’” –Dr. David Perlmutter

To hear a deeper discussion on the following topics, listen to:

The Mission Daily Episode 33: “Stepping” Into a Better You

The Mission Daily Episode 34: How Sleep is All You Need

We’ve seen that sugar and gluten produce an opiate-like cycle of addiction in our brains and bodies. If we embrace a function mentality of ourselves, the next question that follows is, “How do we create new healthy habits for our bodies and brains?”

The answer to that is by beginning habits that endogenously dose the right drugs, at the right times, for our bodies and brains. Endogenously dosing means that our bodies and brains produce healing “drugs” (neurotransmitters). With the right actions and inputs, anyone can produce these healing “drugs” naturally. For instance, we can walk throughout the day, do cardiovascular exercises and weight training, get the right amount of sleep, and eat healthy food. All of these actions endogenously dose all the neurotransmitters that we need to be mission-driven.

But doing these activities is a challenge, and it can be tempting to exogenously dose. When we try to add drugs from outside our bodies (exogenously dosing), we get a whole host of unintended side effects and consequences. In comparison, when we pursue actions that cause our bodies to endogenously dose the right amount of drugs at the right time, we give ourselves exposure to tremendous upside. This upside includes the ability to literally create epigenetic changes (positive upgrades) to our genes that we can pass on to our kids. We can turn on growth factors in our brain that can do everything from speed up our learning capability to growing new neural stem cells. This chapter is about finding the right actions to mix with our inputs so we can endogenously dose what our bodies need for the long term.

The first type of inputs we talked about are some of the most important — our fuel and raw materials. But after consuming inputs, we have to use them to create a complete cycle of growth. The right inputs now require the right actions to fully leverage their benefits.

Taking consistent action towards what we want is by no means easy. If it were, everyone would do it. In order to achieve these outputs, we’ll be forced out of many comfort zones. In order to thrive while forcing ourselves out of comfort zones, we’ll need to take the neurochemistry of our brains into account.

The first thing to understand about the actions we take is that they are determined by our willpower. The only way we are able to consistently exert ourselves and do hard things is by understanding willpower. In the book Willpower, scientist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, outlines willpower as, “…the ability to do what you need to do, even if part of you doesn’t want to.”⁠

The best outcomes we want to create lie behind what part of us does not want to do. We must regulate, build, and safeguard our willpower through our inputs and actions. Anything which stresses us out or makes us feel weak degrades our willpower. The easy answer is to limit our exposure to these things. But the reality of it is that this isn’t so easy, and there are some stressors outside our control. But we’ll always have stressors in life, and if we react positively, we can use them to grow. The best things in life wouldn’t be worth anything if they didn’t lie behind huge stressors. We value outcomes proportionally to the amount of willpower required to achieve them.

So in order to face the stressors that stand between us and a mission-driven life, we must boost our willpower. To do that, we must strategically regulate the raw materials we consume and the actions we take. We can begin by mastering our diet, sleep, and exercise.

By focusing on these three things — in this order — we create a self-reinforcing cycle which helps our bodies create and “endogenously dose” powerful healing drugs. These powerful drugs are neurotransmitters such as serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, testosterone or estrogen, human growth hormone (HGH), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

These drugs all enable us to achieve the outcomes we want. They reinforce, build, and protect our willpower. By regulating our diet, sleep, and exercise, we dose our brains with the right drugs to feel good about ourselves in a sustainable way. When we feel good about ourselves, we want to take care of ourselves. This makes it easy to exercise. When it’s easy for us to exercise, we push ourselves harder and get the full benefit of a workout. When we work out hard, we’re able to sleep more easily. When we sleep more easily, more deeply, and more soundly, we bathe our brains and muscles with the HGH needed to properly recover from exercise. This cycle reinforces itself and helps our abilities and capabilities expand. We end up waking up mission-driven and energized.

Exercise

Cardiovascular exercise has been shown to create brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Dr. John Ratey profiles the creation of this protein vital for brain health and growth in the book Spark. The most useful way to remember why BDNF is so important to our brains is through the nickname Dr. Ratey gives it: “Miracle Grow⁠ for your brain.”

We can’t stroll down to the store and buy BDNF. Even if we could, adding things exogenously to our body comes with a host of unintended side-effects. When we begin mastering our bodies and exercise, we can create BDNF naturally. BDNF is the key to begin building and maintaining a healthy brain and mission-driven life. It’s a relatively cheap super drug or medicine (depending on your view) that each of us can access easily. BDNF requires we pay only a small price of our time (~30 minutes) to cardiovascular exercise. BDNF also facilitates the growth of fatty coating that insulates our neural pathways, called myelin.⁠ Just like electrical wires with the proper insulation, when we learn something new, we can “insulate” the neural pathway involved with performing that task by endogenously releasing BDNF.

It’s sad to watch so many people begin cardiovascular or weight training, then quit before they see any results. Every time this happens, the root of the problem is that their inputs and actions aren’t in alignment. When we stack diet with the actions of exercise and sleep, our bodies and brains are rewarded with human growth hormone. When we don’t stack this trifecta together, we are exposed to injury and burn out.

Optimizing Sleep

Interestingly enough, the sleep part of the equation is the most difficult to implement. So why is getting great sleep so difficult? We can define “great sleep” as when we get eight hours, with optimal time in stages three and four of rapid eye movement (REM). We don’t need to worry about the stages of REM if we have our diet and exercise in order. These will help our bodies proliferate ghrelin and HGH secretion.⁠ Ghrelin helps regulate our appetite and food cravings, so a full eight hours of sleep is mandatory if we want to stay clean from sugar and gluten. And the release of HGH is mandatory if we’re ever going to recover from the stresses of cardiovascular and weight training.

Getting adequate sleep is most difficult because of our culture. The more peculiar parts of our culture associate sleeping less with “toughness.” The person who is “tough” and refuses to get adequate sleep inevitably ends up being a miserable human being with erratic emotions and hormones. The “toughest” among us who “don’t need sleep” also end up with low levels of testosterone and estrogen. If we want to be mission-driven, we must notice stupid, self-destructive cultural quirks. This is the first step to becoming cultural alchemists who build and create culture, instead of just consuming it.

The machismo of competing on who can get by on less sleep is a fools’ game. It’s especially deceiving because most of the harm from sleep deprivation doesn’t show up until later in life. Sleep deprivation is selfish because the illnesses it creates often have to be handled (and paid for) by the victim’s family and children.

To find our mission, we must think about where a poor diet, little sleep, and no exercise lead. People who engage in these behaviors make themselves and their families miserable in the near term. They fail to become a function which ever produces positive outcomes. Eventually, they bring an illness onto themselves which forces others to take care of them. Those who refuse to take the actions of creating a clean diet, great sleep, and adequate exercise are not just stupid; they’re downright selfish.

Making exercise and sleep into priorities which we enforce is vital to any outcome we want to create. The outcome we envision for ourselves has no chance of happening until we continually sell ourselves on how amazing that outcome could be. Chances are, we’ll never be able to fully sell ourselves until we have the right incentives and stakes, and immerse ourselves in supportive work and personal relationships.

Whenever there is an outcome in our lives that we’re failing to achieve, we purely need to examine the incentives and stakes. By tweaking and adjusting these, we influence our likelihood of achieving the outcome we want. When the right blend of incentives and stakes hit a tipping point, we will be forced to take massive action. But before we can create the right blend of incentives and stakes, we must have sufficient willpower and neurochemistry to take action.

Experimenting with our inputs and actions by placing stakes and incentives around them is the only way to start engineering the outcomes we want. New habits take an average of 66 days to form.⁠ Stakes and incentives are the only powers strong enough to change our behaviors in the most vital inputs and actions we have: diet, sleep, and exercise. Now, let’s explore several experiments and challenges to create new habits.

The Most Powerful Prescription

These are experiments and ideas to get us started and focused on the three most important actions we can take every single day. These three actions combine to give us access to a huge endogenous supply of performance enhancing drugs: HGH and BDNF.

One Day at a Time

Hang a year calendar on the wall. The calendar has to go up in a place where we’re forced to look at it daily. At the end of each day, when we’ve won (enough sleep, kept our diet clean, and exercised), we put a big check on that day. Seeing all 365 days in the year is a powerful reminder that the most important battle to win begins every single day.

Exercise

Cardiovascular exercise to dose BDNF:

Running: Wherever possible, run and sprint. Try to do this off of the pavement to prevent injury. Find an area with soft grass, or take up swimming. Running or walking on pavement is preferable to doing nothing at all, but running on grass or swimming is much better for the long term.

Rest Days: When we work out hard and smart, we only need to do it three days a week. Give the HGH your body is producing a chance to help you recover from your exercise.

Creating incentives and stakes around exercising:

Martial Arts: Get two to three friends and go to a private center. Avoid blows to the head because of the whole traumatic brain injury risk.

Yoga: Find a class on Meetup.com or at the local gym.

Bikram Yoga: This is an experience which, when done right, leaves most people with several hours of calm (sometimes euphoric) after-effects.

A class can be helpful when our willpower is drained, but it’s something we’ve already paid for (incentive to go) where class members or friends are counting on meeting us there (stakes). If we find ourselves not doing these activities, we only need to ratchet up the stakes and incentives until we act.

More Ideas for Exercise Stakes and Incentives

  • Sign up for a workout class with a friend or spouse who motivates us.
  • Bet money on whether we will or won’t accomplish our exercise goals with somebody who underestimates us.
  • Do them with a group so we can’t back out.
  • Pay money for classes which are nonrefundable.
  • Realize that getting up and going to the gym requires more willpower than actually working out once we’re there. If we can just make a few taps on our phone to call an Uber, we’ve already instantly applied stakes and incentives to grease the wheels that will be forcing us out the door and to the gym.

The biggest threats to sleep we face are caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and gluten. I found that the single biggest benefit to my sleep came when I gave up drinking caffeinated coffee. The process was incredibly challenging, and I wasn’t able to get completely clean from it for almost a year. But the end results were worth it. I tried a similar experiment with eliminating alcohol, and again, found enormous benefits. Alcohol in our bloodstream is instantly converted to sugar. It completely destroys our sleep and REM time. I’ve never met anyone who has a (genuinely) mission-driven life who says that alcohol and caffeine helped them get there.

Another big threat to our sleep is when we never catch up on past sleep that we’ve missed. This is tough to accomplish, but it’s important to get caught up however we can.

If we’re severely lacking in sleep, consider “catching up” with a float tank. A float tank is a soundproof, lightless tank where a person floats in salt water at skin temperature. Float tanks, on average, give us the equivalent of four hours of sleep for every hour spent in the tank. After a certain point, these returns will be diminishing, so please don’t get in a float tank for twelve hours! Go to a local professional provider with a new, well filtered and cared for tank. Float tanks take some getting used to, but the benefits from them are enormous. Expect them to completely sweep the country in popularity within a few years. Float tanks will be seen as a must-have tool for accelerated meditation, healing, and general well-being.

Additional ideas and strategies for amazing sleep:

  • Block out all the light coming into our rooms
  • Breathe Right nasal strips
  • White noise (can be a fan)
  • Optimal room temperature for sleep: 60–66 degrees

Want to learn more ways you can get more energy? Listen to:

The Mission Daily Episode 33: “Stepping” Into a Better You

The Mission Daily Episode 34: How Sleep is All You Need

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How to Get More Energy was originally published in The Mission on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Chad Grills

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