5 Ways to Make Healthier Decisions When You're Exhausted

Here's how to stay healthy when you're running on empty.

Life has handed most of us some pretty major stressors over the past year. It's safe to say many of us are more depleted than ever. You'd think this would mean we'd be even more determined to keep our healthy habits and future health goals on the rails, but our collective exhaustion is actually causing the opposite to happen.

"In my clinical work, I see people making more unhealthy decisions than usual right now because of the way our current reality negatively impacts mood," says Naomi Torres-Mackie, Ph.D., New York-based clinical psychologist and head of research at The Mental Health Coalition. "The worse your mood is, often the harder it becomes to make healthy choices."

Healthy choices require forethought, energy and motivation—all things that are MIA when we're exhausted, a time when impulsive decisions typically reign supreme. "This is because our executive functioning (which is involved in planning and decision-making) is decreased when we're tired, so we tend to make decisions that will feel good in the immediate or short-term, as opposed to thinking long-game," explains Torres-Mackie.

As much as we want to follow the usual advice of setting health goals, incorporating healthy habits into our schedule and sticking to a routine, it's extremely difficult in the situation many of us are living in to make these advanced plans and stick to them, especially without the typical day-to-day structure we're used to.

tired woman experiencing burnout and fatigue
Getty Images / mapodile

"Many of the general recommendations that health experts rely on may not be as impactful in the setting of unstructured days or significant day-to-day variations that are beyond our control," says Jessica Tosto, RD, clinical coordinator for the nutrition and dietetics program at Pace University's College of Health Professions in New York.

How to Make Healthier Choices When You're Tired

To make healthier decisions when you're exhausted, here's how experts recommend steering yourself toward more nurturing moves in the moment:

1. When you veg out instead of exercise

Research suggests that when we're exhausted, it takes a significant toll on our ability to stay motivated to do anything. Hence why it's so tempting to lounge around instead of exercise, no matter how many times we are told how much better we'll feel afterward.

"Opting out of exercise, unfortunately, ends up making fatigue worse in the long run because you're depriving yourself of the bump in energy that exercise gives you," says Torres-Mackie. "So when exhaustion leaves us sitting on the couch rather than working out, we end up feeding our exhaustion rather than curing it."

The fix: Torres-Mackie recommends setting a timer, getting comfy and taking one minute to breathe deeply while imagining yourself engaging in the healthier choice (in this case, working out rather than lounging around). "Research suggests that mindfulness clears the mind and can lead to healthier decision-making," she says. "After the 60 seconds are up, you're more likely to feel refreshed and decide to take the healthier, more energizing option." And if you can't *quite* motivate yourself to get out of the house, we have some awesome, equipment-free exercises you can do right in your living room.

2. When you wait until you're starving to have a snack

When you're ravenous for a snack but don't have a clue what to make, you might find yourself grabbing the crackers in the cabinet and eating them straight out of the box while you figure it out—only, you eat so many crackers that you're full, and that nutritious snack of yours never happens.

The longer you eat like this (overly hungry, mindlessly munching, etc.), the more tired you'll become, and the less likely you'll be to make a healthy choice next time. "When you wait until your blood sugar's low or you're overly hungry, you can no longer focus on decision-making," says South Philadelphia-based registered dietitian Beth Auguste, RD. "The brain needs glucose to think clearly, and if we're depleted because we waited too long to eat, then it can be more difficult to plan a balanced snack."

The fix: Plan to have an intentional snack. "If you know you tend to get peckish around 3 p.m., then stop feeling surprised that you want to eat and plan to have an intentional snack around 2:30 p.m.," suggests Auguste. You don't necessarily have to pre-make your snacks, but decide in advance what you'll have when the time comes, and mentally make sure you have the necessary protein, carb and healthy fat available. Try one of our healthy, high-protein snacks to keep you fuller for longer.

3. When you grab junk food instead of heating up a healthy dish

You might prep healthy foods for yourself, yet still grab junk food instead—say, because even the thought of heating something up feels like too much effort or you can't stand dealing with one more dirty dish.

"Healthy behaviors are often perceived as taking more energy than non-healthy behaviors," says Tennessee-based licensed clinical psychologist Lisa Webb, Psy.D. "The state of exhaustion essentially 'tricks' the mind into thinking that whatever the healthier behavior you're wanting to do will deplete the body further."

Doing this every once in a while is likely not the end of the world. But when it becomes a habit several times a week, you're not fueling your body with the nutrients it needs to increase your energy levels, making it that much harder to make healthy choices going forward.

"There can also be underlying feelings of guilt or shame surrounding eating habits, which can contribute additional stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue, further exacerbating this cycle," says Tosto.

The fix: Start by recognizing why you're craving these foods—are you actually hungry for them? Or are you bored? Upset? Stressed out? Avoiding something else you don't want to do? "Recognizing your motivation for wanting to eat this way can help you identify other strategies to address your feelings or fill a void that's not food-related," says Tosto.

But if you're truly hungry and really want to eat the ice cream, sometimes the best decision is to just honor that food craving in the moment.

"If you try to satiate a craving for ice cream with veggies and hummus, it's probably not going to work," says Tosto. "You could find yourself eating the healthy option (which does still have calories) and then going for the ice cream after all because the craving wasn't satisfied."

When you're truly hungry for the ice cream, eat the ice cream. "But try to keep the portion size small and then balance it out with a healthier option, like a piece of fruit," adds Tosto.

4. When you drink booze as your bedtime snack

Now that every day feels like it's a year long, it's understandable to want to level out the feelings storm going on inside your body, which is why so many of us are turning to an alcoholic nightcap (or two) instead of a sleep-inducing snack.

"The brain's release of endorphins, or feel-good chemicals, is the primary mechanism behind why we engage in unhealthy behaviors that we logically know aren't good for us, but will provide us a temporary reprieve from feeling awful," says Webb.

Fast forward to the next morning, when you're hungover, dehydrated and seemingly more tired than when you started, leaving yourself with even less energy to make healthy choices.

The fix: "Make an intentional attempt to engage in behavior opposite of what you're feeling," says Webb. For example, instead of numbing your feelings with booze, try to acknowledge your emotions and steer them in a lighter direction by watching a motivational speaker, funny movie or listening to an energetic podcast. "These activities help to change brain chemistry," says Webb.

5. When you put off work or sleep by doom-scrolling and binge-watching

"A hallmark symptom of exhaustion is avoidance," says Webb. "That is, avoiding people, responsibilities and avoiding thoughts and feelings." Two of the most prominent ways we've been doing that these days is via doom-scrolling and binge-watching.

The cruel irony is that procrastinating is more taxing for your brain than dealing with the task you're putting off due to exhaustion. "When we avoid, our anxiety about whatever it is we're avoiding has a tendency to increase and zap mental energy even more," says Webb.

The fix: To stop yourself from, well, stopping yourself, it can be helpful to imagine the long-term implications of what you're about to do out of avoidance. Picture how much harder tomorrow's going to be if you don't get that work task done or you miss out on another hour of sleep because of watching one more episode.

"It might feel good to satisfy that impulse right now, but imagining the regret you'll feel the next day is a way to slow yourself down and make healthier decisions," says Torres-Mackie. Avoiding avoidance will make it easier for you to get rest when it's time to do so—and more rest means more energy to invest in creating and maintaining healthy habits.

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