We're all familiar with the feeling: You spend the day working your desk job, only to leave the office feeling completely beat—as if you've run a marathon when really your day consisted of back-to-back meetings. The work fatigue phenomenon is real, and New York Magazine's Science of Us tapped experts to weigh in on what exactly is happening.
"Your muscles normally aren't sucking a lot of oxygen out of you," explains Steven Feinsilver, MD, the director of sleep medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital. "With exercise, they will. But the brain always takes a lot of your energy." So even while you're seated at your desk, staring at your computer screen all day, your brain—reading and responding to emails, making decisions, and getting through the workday—is using up your energy. "We're animals that are designed to exercise physically as well as mentally," notes Feinsilver.
"Mental exertion is real, and certainly may be tiring, but I think it's probably true that physical exertion makes it more likely that you'll get a good night's sleep." Though you may feel like you've spent every ounce of energy at the end of the work day, it doesn't have the same benefits of actual exercise and won't necessarily help you recharge once you head to bed.
What's more, not only are you becoming drained from your own mental activity, but your surroundings at work also might be sucking the life out of you. "Emotions are pretty much contagious, so the environment you're in can make you exhausted," says Curtis Reisinger, PhD, clinical psychologist at Zucker Hillside Hospital. "If you're with a group of people who are all talking about how stressed and fatigued they are, over time, this will become a normative behavior for the group."
So what's the best way to combat this seemingly inevitable work-induced wipeout? Keep your blood flowing by staying hydrated and taking necessary bathroom breaks. "The general rule of thumb is, at least every half hour or so you get up and take a walk down the hall, get a glass of water, do some knee bends," advises Reisinger. "People get dehydrated when they sit, and hydration is very, very important to how you feel." Try this straightforward trick for this upcoming workweek and see if there's an uptick in your energy levels.
Always tired? Eat these energy-boosting foods ASAP.