How to Get Things Done When You’re Low on Energy

What is “Energy”?

You may remember from physics class that “energy is the ability to do work.”  That's true in physics, but when human beings talk about “having energy” (or not having energy) in their daily lives, that has a particular meaning at the biological level. If you are recovering from surgery and in cancer rehab, understanding the science and biology behind energy can help you get things done when you're feeling low.

Cellular Energy

As explained in this 6-minute lecture, the production of energy inside a cell of the body is essentially “photosynthesis in reverse”: converting sugar+oxygen into carbon dioxide, water, and energy.

And here is a 1-minute animation of energy being produced inside a mitochondrion:

As you can see, oxygen is crucial to this chemical/biological process.  And lung-cancer survivors tend to have a harder time than average with oxygen intake!

What is “Energy Conservation”?

After any surgery or intensive medical treatment, available bodily energy will be low, because the body is using a lot of energy just to heal.  And this is doubly true of anything that impacts the lungs.  So, lung-cancer survivors need some particularized strategies for managing the energy they do have, and making the most of it.

A woman recovering from lung cancer rests on a park bench to gain more energy.

How Do I Conserve Energy While Recovering From Lung Cancer?

Plan Ahead!

Obviously you must prioritize your healing and recovery… but there is still “normal life stuff” that needs to get done, right?  So, make a thoughtful plan for what has to happen, and what can wait.  Prioritize, and deliberately say “No” to whatever you can as needed.  Work with your spouse or caretaker to make the plan, so that it’s realistic and so you both have the same expectations.  At the beginning, give yourself a “low bar” for what you will call success for a given day.

When You Are Working, Be Resting

Then, work on your plan.  “Put the big rocks in first” and spend your best energy on the tasks you consider most critical – some of which should be promoting your recovery!  Most likely, your “best energy” will come in the morning, so be diligent for those few hours (but take breaks as necessary).  However: consciously plan for the “work” you do each day to be things that are low-stress, that involve gentle movement, and that somehow promote healing and an overall healthy lifestyle.

Here are some more specific examples of what good planning might look like:

  • Only plan for one “big thing” per day.  If you have a follow-up or therapy appointment scheduled, for example, probably don’t plan any other outings or projects for that day.
  • Make a large, healthy, but fairly simple meal in the morning – lentil recovery soup, for instance, or a large egg-and-vegetable casserole or quiche – and eat it for the next several dinners. (Quality protein is crucial for rebuilding after any surgery – get plenty.)  Then don’t do any more “big cooking” for a few days.  Be content with simply prepared fruits and vegetables, fried eggs, a quick tuna salad, etc. – things that are nourishing but not labor-intensive.  And then maybe plan for some kind of fresh & healthy take-out on a day when you know cooking just won’t be realistic.
  • Schedule time for naps as needed, and early bedtimes.
  • Group errands together to reduce your number of outings.  Plan plenty of time, take it slow, and maybe include “sit on the bench in the park” or some other relaxing activity as an agenda item in the middle of the other errands.

When You Are Resting, Be Working

Rest is essential. But don’t just turn on the TV and say “I’m resting.”  No.  When your body needs to be still, it’s because – internally – it’s working hard to heal and rebuild.  So help it out.

  • Intentionally practice deep breathing (see the previous blog post).  Oxygenate your cells and help them replenish as they heal. 
  • Practice some low-movement “chair yoga” or something to keep ligaments and muscles moving and stretching and your lymph flowing.
  • Take a deliberate break from any kind of electronic device.  Instead, position your bed or chair so you can look out a window at nature.  Better yet, be outside when you can, looking at the fractal geometry of plants, and also the color green, both of which have been shown to be relaxing and healing (source and source).  Put your bare feet in the grass and let your body ground itself. Soak up some sun and build vitamin D, which is important for blood oxygenation and for fighting cancer.
  • Work on your week’s meal plan.  Flip through a cookbook (they do still exist! you have some on a shelf somewhere!) or search online for easy to prepare, nutritional recipes. Strategize. Good nutrition is essential and cooking doesn’t have to be complicated.
  • Practice gratitude and pray.  Apart from their spiritual benefits, these disciplines also promote a parasympathetic healing state in the body.

Get Professional Counsel

When you need tailored coaching for your own unique situation, we are here to help.  Please look at our Lung Cancer Rehab services, schedule a free 15-minute consultation, and then call (703) 789-0367 to set up an appointment.  Our trained physical therapists can help you craft the best plan for you and give you even more suggestions on how to best conserve your energy, how to get things done (and do the things you enjoy as well) and how to best pace your daily activities to enable you to make the most of each and every day.