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Fitness | KATHY SMITH

Exercise and Sleep, the Caffeine-Free Energy Boosters

June 01, 1998|KATHY SMITH

After dropping the kids off at school, I wanted to jog with some of the other moms, two of whom were sipping double-decker coffees from the local house of java when I arrived at the track. As we were about to begin, one woman suggested walking a few laps so they could finish drinking.

"That way," she said, "we'll get the energy we need to keep moving."

Funny how things change. Just a few years ago, these same women, dressed in workout clothes, would have been carrying black mesh bags with liters of bottled water inside. Hydration was the day's operative word. Today, however, the ubiquitous beverage of choice is coffee--at up to three bucks a pop--because it's caffeine that fuels our on-the-run-get-it-done society.

These days, people looking for a sustained caffeine burst even chase their coffee with grapefruit juice, hoping it will extend the rush from four hours or less to about six.

Call it the Starbucking of America.

Believe me, I love the smell of coffee. And I even respect the coffee-house culture that's been evolving. But I don't drink the stuff, nor any other caffeinated beverage. In my experience, there are better, healthier and cheaper ways to get the energy and alertness required to make it through a busy day.

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For one thing, I don't appreciate the fact that as caffeine works in the body, it raises your heart rate and blood pressure, and can cause heart palpitations.

Nor do I like that caffeine is a diuretic and bladder irritant. Given the amount of water I drink, I'd be running to the bathroom every 14 minutes if leaded coffee or tea passed my lips. In fact, I know a lot of women who have given up high-impact aerobics because of coffee-induced exercise incontinence: All that jumping up and down causes their stimulated bladders to leak.

The last thing that really bothers me about caffeine is its addictive nature. I saw that firsthand awhile back when my husband, Steve, decided to quit cold turkey and immediately went into withdrawal, suffering excruciating headaches for nearly a week. And he had been drinking less than two cups a day!

(If you ever decide to try living without caffeine, I suggest a gradual withdrawal. Start by drinking half decaf, half regular, increasing the decaf ratio slowly. You can even dilute your coffee with milk. When you finally switch completely, have on hand a soft drink or a bit of chocolate--something with smaller amounts of caffeine--that can ease the final transition.)

The way I see it, habitual caffeine users have lost touch with their natural energy flow. They've become accustomed to the artificially induced spikes in energy that coffee provides, as well as the lows that result when its effect wears off. After a few hours, it's natural to consume another cup as a way to furnish the next jolt (which, fittingly enough, is the name of a high-octane cola drink aimed at young people). They're never "off" caffeine long enough to comprehend how profoundly it really affects them; how much of their fatigue, irritability, and anxiety may be side effects.

Lost in all this manic intensity is the sense of harmony that's established when you derive energy in more natural ways--sleep, food, exercise and even air.

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I go to bed at night with the goal of sleeping well and waking refreshed the next morning. After all, that's the purpose of sleep, to allow the body to shut down and re-energize--something that's difficult or impossible if caffeine disturbs natural sleep patterns.

Upon awakening, I usually start the day with some exercise, which I've found to be the best way of kick-starting both brain and body. My heart pumping and blood oxygenated, I feel alert and ready to handle whatever the world throws at me.

Then I eat a good breakfast, one that includes some complex carbohydrates (like whole grain cereal), which the body metabolizes easily into energy, as well as a protein source and some fat. Throughout the day, I continue to eat well, including balanced lunches and dinners, even some snacks. The bottom line is that you can't manufacture energy out of nothing. Despite what that cuppa Joe seems to buy, the body requires calories. Anyone who tries to run strictly on coffee ends up running on empty.

As the day progresses, I'll periodically do my breathing exercises. Inhaling slowly through my nose, I allow the air to fill my lungs and expand my abdominals. Then I expel the carbon dioxide in a forceful, explosive exhalation out the nose. A series of these gives me an immediate torrent of energy. As does stretching. And some upbeat music. And exposure to the sun (with sunscreen). And even an occasional nap, if time permits.

True, as sources of energy go, these aren't as sexy as, say, a few double lattes with extra foam. But they serve me well. Relying on them, I know I'll feel better.

And one of the things I'll feel better about is all the money I save.

Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

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Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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