Energy ups and downs: feel as if you’re on a roller coaster–wide awake one minute and half-asleep the next? Here’s how to steady your energy

You may read this article and find it interesting, or you may simply stare at the page. Either way, the words won t change. But what you remember about this article may depend on when you read it.

If you’re like 14-year-old Joey Twarkins of Beacon Falls, Conn., you may get more from reading this article in the morning. That’s when Joey has the most energy. He’s had almost nine hours of sleep and he’s just eaten breakfast.

If you’re like 14-year-old Zoe Skibbie, of Hopkinton, N.H., reading this article in the afternoon could make your eyelids droop. She’s been awake since early morning, and it has been several hours since she’s eaten or exercised. “I feel like cooked spaghetti at 2 o’clock,” she says.

Zoe’s older sister, Anya, 17, would get the most from reading the article just before lunch. That’s right after she has PE. “It’s like I wake up when I work out,” Anya says.

You may not have the same energy highs or lows as Joey, Zoe, or Anya. But very few kids–or adults–maintain the same energy level all day. Why? Here’s a hint: Think about what people say when they’re tired: “I’m out of gas” or “I need to recharge my batteries.”

In some ways, your body is like a car, and energy is like your engine. It can run, but someone needs to start it, fuel it, and keep it tuned up. Three things keep your energy engine running: exercise, food, and rest. Here’s how those crucial components work together.

Pumped Up With Exercise

Think of exercise as your starter. Blood flow increases when your brain of body is active–even when you are unaware of it. For example, your brain needs energy to understand these words as your eyes travel across the page.

When the energy ignition is on, blood vessels in your brain become wider, increasing the blood flow. The heart conveys blood to the brain and body, and a strong heart delivers oxygen more efficiently. That’s why health experts recommend regular exercise to strengthen the heart.

Coach and physical therapist Nancy Reichlin of Norwalk, Conn., agrees. She suggests that young people try to get at least an hour of moderate physical activity every day.

“It’s simple: Exercise equals energy,” says Reichlin. “And doing something every day–riding a bike, walking, dancing–is better for your heart than waiting till the weekend [to exercise]. Even if you squeeze in 10 minutes of physical activity a few times a day, you help yourself.”

Eating for Energy

Think of food as your engine’s fuel. The gasoline–glucose (blood sugar)–is made when the digestive system breaks down food into molecules. Then the glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream in a process called metabolism. Cells absorb glucose from the blood and use it for energy. With high glucose levels, your engine runs well; with low levels, your engine sputters.

Foods are generally separated into three classes: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Nutritionists agree that foods high in carbohydrates give you the best mileage. Whole-grain cereals, pasta, potatoes, and beans are all packed with carbohydrates.

Discuss

* At what time of day do you have the most energy? Why do you think that is?

* What three things keep your “energy engine” running?

* How much exercise should you get daily? Why?

* How does the body get energy from food?

Do

Have students keep energy journals for one week. They should record what they eat, how much exercise and rest they get, and the times for each. Have them note as the day goes on the times when they feel the most and least energized. Encourage students to try to make daily adjustments in nutrition, exercise, and rest to find out if any one of those has an effect on their energy levels. At the end of the week, ask students to draw a conclusion about energy based on their personal experiences.

Resources

California Project LEAN’s Food on the Run program encourages teens to eat healthful foods and increase their physical activity to raise energy levels. Student advocates in nearly 30 high schools are working to add more healthful foods in the cafeteria and vending machines and increase the opportunities for students to be physically active. Visit the program’s Web site for teen-specific information on nutrition and exercise, including recipes and games. www.californiaprojectlean.org

The PBS reality show for teens In the Mix has produced an episode titled “Fit for Life … Eat Smart & Exercise.” Visit the show’s Web site for tips on nutrition and exercise, a transcript, educator information, and program listings. www.pbs.org/inthemix

No Sleep, Big Test: What Do You Do?

It happens to everyone: The night before the big test, all you can do is toss and turn in your bed. How can you get enough of an emergency energy supply to ace the test? You can’t take a nap in school. Instead, you’re better off eating a good meal and taking a deep breath.

How will that help? When you’re tired, your glucose levels are low. So a “good” meal is one that contains carbohydrates. Studies have shown that eating high-carb foods can improve memory within an hour. Eat a sandwich or another high-carbohydrate food an hour before the test.

Breathing deeply helps too. That will increase the oxygen levels in your blood. Right before the test, try this breathing exercise: Stick out your tongue partway and curl the sides up, as though your tongue were a straw. Count to two as you take in a “sip” of air. Close your mouth and count to eight. Then breathe out through your nose and count to four. Repeat those steps five times.

Now you’re ready for the test. After all, you did study, right?

Jason Tsokalas, 15, of Hebron, Conn., likes “whole grain waffles for breakfast and turkey on wheat with mayo” for lunch. Those are excellent energy foods because Jason metabolizes them steadily during the day. Jason says he has the most energy right after lunch. That’s because he’s had two meals built around carbohydrates. His energy tank is full.

Nutritionist Sharon Mierzwa of Hartford, Conn., says Jason’s meals are great. But she also recommends adding chopped walnuts of sliced bananas to the waffles. “Nuts are great for all-day energy, and potassium in bananas helps cells during the metabolic process,” she says.

Mierzwa says it’s important for kids to avoid sweet breakfast treats and to stay away from candy or soda at lunch. Those foods are high in sucrose, also known as table sugar,. Because sucrose is converted to glucose almost immediately, the gas burns fast and the fuel tank soon reads empty.

Lights Out for Rest

Sleep is tune-up time. You should recharge by sleeping between eight and nine hours–the recommended amount for teenagers. Rest allows your cells to store glucose. Too little sleep means you burn glucose rather than store it. Experiments have shown that glucose levels in rats drop when the animals are awake and rise while they sleep. Less sleep means less energy–for both rats and humans.

Now that you know more about energy, you can keep your engine humming. With exercise, the right foods, and enough sleep, you can get off the roller coaster and enjoy a steady ride.

Ingram, Scott