Managing your energy levels is a daily priority, whether a beginner or a pro. As an exercise buff, but especially if you’re into the collegiate or pro ranks, you face many daily demands while at the same time, asking your body to perform at its best, both mentally and physically, for your chosen activity. And, the more intense that activity, the more important your energy level. To remain at your best means having a systematic, practiced fueling strategy. This is known as energy management. Whether in that championship MMA fight, rigorous soccer game, or marathon run, you must have enough energy ready and available to support your body’s health, growth, daily activity, and training. Thus, you need to practice energy availability – EA. This is the amount of energy left over and available for your body’s functions after the energy expended for daily activities and training is subtracted from the energy you take in from food. In scientific terms, we write it as a basic equation – simplified:
Food Energy Intake – Exercise Energy Expenditure = EA
Your Energy Meter(s)
Regardless of who you are, your body will exhibit signs and symptoms to let you know how it’s feeling. These are important because most of them denote how your body is managing its energy thus, look a little closer at each. Additionally, nutrition is generally ‘the’ key factor in your EA.
General Energy Availability Symptoms
• Absent/irregular menstrual cycles
• Always hurt or injured
• Chronic fatigue
• Decreased muscle strength
• Disordered-eating thoughts
• Gastrointestinal problems
• Inability to gain or build muscle or strength
• Poor performance
• Recurring illnesses/infections
• Stress fractures/repeated bone injuries
• Training hard with minimal performance improvement
• Weight loss
Can You Alter Energy Availability?
The energy goal for a healthy exercise buff or athlete is to have the ability to adjust daily dietary intake to cover all the expenditures from both general daily activity, exercise, and training. Such adjustments promote energy balance that is positive for both health and performance. Whether you’re an athlete or not, you can negatively alter your EA knowingly or unknowingly. As an example, EA can be reduced by increasing training, increasing the intensity of your training, over-training or exercising and or decreasing the amount of food you eats. For example, it is not uncommon to adopt abnormal eating behaviors such as fasting (especially for those desiring to drop weight quickly), skipping meals, restricting food types, binge eating, or using diet pills or laxatives. There are also those who have developed or have eating disorders. Any of these can affect your EA.
Low EA generally results in adjustments to your body’s systems that can cause metabolic, hormonal, and or functional disruptions. The latter are complications that can occur in both men and women. Such an energy deficiency will generally affect physiological functions such as protein synthesis, cardiovascular health, metabolic rate, bone health, immunity, psychological health, and menstrual cycles. As an example, an energy deficiency can:
• Decrease your body’s production of growth hormone (an important hormone for muscle and bone growth and repair);
• Impair your body’s ability to use glucose effectively for energy (this is very detrimental to marathon and speed athletes, as well as speed-strength and fast motion athletes such as martial artists and track and field;
• Increase cholesterol;
• Increase fat stores in the body; and
• Slow down your metabolic rate, which reduces fat burning ability and other physiological functioning.
For women specifically, a low EA and its resulting effect on menstrual function and bone growth is a major portion of the female athlete triad (discussed here on our website). If you have missed 2-3 cycles in a row, you should see your physician, especially, since altered hormones can disrupt the menstrual cycle – often due to impairment of arteries that deliver oxygen and nutrients to the body and working muscles. This problem can result in fatigue and reduce the ability of muscles to use oxygen.
Also, although some would herald the news, weight loss is often a sign that the body has reached an energy deficit, which may indicate low EA. However, low EA is not always accompanied by weight loss. My experience with athletes, especially since developing NASA’s long-term space travel exercise protocol, it would appear that the most important body components affected by low EA are the bones. Low EA can directly impair bone health and development by affecting hormones that build and restore bone. And, as you age, bone growth and density becomes even more important. Additionally, low EA in women indirectly impairs bone by disturbing the menstrual function and estrogen levels. While bone growth is very important during your early and late 20s, especially for females, it is important to maintain and improve growth and density of your bones – best done by overloading them periodically in the gym.
How Can You Practice Energy Management?
By recognizing the signs and symptoms of potential energy deficit, you can detect it early and adjust for it. If you really need help, speak with a registered dietician. However, short term, you can examine the following and determine As a good first step toward improving your performance and preventing long-term health problems, talk with your sports medicine provider or a sports registered dietitian (sports RD). In the meantime, keep the following ideas in mind to help you manage your energy and performance.
• 3 meals and snacks are typical for most people to meet daily energy needs, just remember your meal frequency, 3 meals with snacks between.
• A DEXA scan, also termed DXA, which measures bone mineral density may be a good idea to evaluate your body’s bone health, especially for those experiencing low EA symptoms. A DEXA scan takes only about 5 minutes to perform depending on what part of the body is being scanned.
• Always look for and use reputable sources of information about EA, fitness, training, health, and nutrition.
• Appetite is not always indicative of your food and fueling needs, especially since many want to eat a lot or sometimes not at all.
• Are you planning to diet? If so, is it your weight or your physical performance that is the driving force?
• Ask your doctor if a vitamin D blood test or a combination calcium and vitamin D supplementation is important for you.
• Consider meal replacement supplements or protein shakes as tools to help manage high-energy demands. This is almost a norm in many respects, but make sure they are good ones; opt for research grade supplements and not hype-driven ones. CytoCharge.com is a good place to obtain research grade supplements, which are the very best.
• Develop a realistic, performance-oriented, health-minded weight and body composition goal. This is a long-term goal, not a short 3-6-month goal. Set a realistic timeline for any weight loss or body composition changes; avoid quick fixes.
• Follow a good, well-planned nutrition program, which is a key to great performance.
• Maintain a structured eating guideline for your heavy/intense-training cycles.
• Sometimes an increase in energy from food, or a reduction in exercise, or a combination of both, can be important adjustments to get into a good energy balance. Experiment a little with your nutrition and training regimen because that’s the best way to determine EA for your individual needs.