It's not your imagination: A lousy night's sleep, an overzealous workout, or a third glass of wine really can take more of a toll than it used to. Learn how to recover faster, and reclaim your resilience.

By Lauren Oster
January 31, 2020

It gets trickier to swing at life's curveballs as you age, no matter how healthy you are. According to new research, little things that barely fazed us in our 20s actually take longer to rebound from in the decades that follow. (And if you've already experienced second-day soreness after a run, you know what we're talking about.) Fortunately, experts in fields from nutrition to sports medicine are gaining insight into how we can rally from these common scenarios.

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You Slept Terribly

It doesn't take an all-nighter to make you feel exhausted. Sometimes you just don't get the seven to nine hours you need. That's partly because what experts call our sleep architecture can change as factors like stress levels and medication side effects cut into how long and well we snooze. As for what you can do? Just as dimming light helps you wind down, dialing it up says, "Rise and shine." Within 15 minutes of waking, ease into alertness by "getting outside or sitting next to a window for some natural exposure," says Sarah Silverman, PsyD, director of the Cognitive Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center, in New York City. This works when it's overcast, too, and is great for jet lag.

Just as helpful? Taking a power nap—20 minutes between 1 and 3 p.m. is the ideal length and window to feel refreshed without throwing off your nighttime schedule, says David Neubauer, MD, associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center, in Baltimore. If your office doesn't have a nap room (and many beyond Google's do), head home if it's nearby, or take a lunchtime yoga class and squeeze every last drop out of that savasana. And then commit overnight. You're probably daydreaming about climbing into bed well before Fallon tonight. But don't stop there: Hitting the sack 15 minutes earlier than usual for the next several nights is the key, per the National Sleep Foundation. Turn in at 10:15 instead of 10:30 till you feel fully caught up.

You Had a Rich Meal

From amuse-bouche to a French cheese assortment, a celebratory dinner can cause a multi-course menu of digestive problems. Blame biology: Our metabolism slows as we age. Plus, lactose intolerance is more common in older adults, says Anna Kippen, MS, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine. She recommends stopping at one ounce of cheese (picture a pair of dice) to avoid discomfort, but if ample triple-cream has already been downed, go for a leisurely stroll. A 20-to-30-minute digestion-stimulating walk "helps bring your blood sugar down and can reduce post-meal bloating," says Kippen. If thunder down under persists, then take an antacid like Tums ($7.70, walmart.com) or Pepto-Bismol ($5.59, target.com).

You Regret That Refill

Unlike a fine wine, our relationship with alcohol doesn't get better with age. In fact, the brain and liver become more sensitive to its toxicity, and the enzymes that metabolize it work less proficiently. To relieve the agonizing aftereffects, stick to a standard dose of an over-the-counter NSAID (such as Advil ($9.48, walmart.com), since popping an extra pill or two can upset the stomach even more. Also, avoid "the hair of the dog"—it only delays the inevitable. You feel awful partly because your blood-alcohol concentration level is plummeting down to zero, cuing a nauseating reaction from your nervous system. More booze only sends it back up. Have some H2O instead.

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You Overdid It at the Gym

It happens to beginners and seasoned boot campers. "We may need more time to recover after rigorous workouts as we age," says Edward Laskowski, MD, codirector of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine, in Rochester, Minnesota. One potential explanation is that mature muscles take longer to repair themselves. But that's no reason to cut back on vigorous activity. Getting 75 to 150 minutes a week (or 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise) helps prevent dementia, heart disease, stroke, and 13 kinds of cancer. To ward off soreness and fatigue, take action. Step one: Drink that entire bottle of water. "Most people finish exercise at least somewhat dehydrated," says Laskowski. Then have a snack of healthy carbs and lean proteins within 30 minutes to "help your body fill its tank and optimize muscle rebuilding." A combo of vegetables and legumes, like hummus and carrot sticks, or a breakfast of oatmeal and berries, checks those boxes. And then keep moving. Light physical activity—a few sun salutations, a short walk—after a workout can help maintain blood flow to the targeted muscles and mitigate delayed-onset soreness, Laskowski says.

Spacing high-impact classes—boxing, CrossFit craziness—out a few days apart will also help. When your quads are sore, copy the guy with the barbells and make it an arms day (and vice versa). This gives maxed-out muscles time to repair and grow stronger.

Your Cold Won't Quit

A low-grade bug can linger for weeks, or seem to disappear only to rear its head again. Chalk it up to immunosenescence, the scientific term for the gradual decrease in immune function as we mature. To kick coughs and sniffles, docs suggest plenty of sleep, water, and healthy food (fruit, vegetables, and lean proteins), as well this age-old trick: Gargle with salt water. It's a twist on an oldie, and science backs it up: Sea salt has anti-inflammatory powers that ease a sore throat, break up mucus, and kill bacteria, says Pittsburgh-based funtional-medicine practitioner Will Cole. Honey is another natural germ killer, so reliable the British National Health Service recommends it in lieu of prescription antibiotics for coughs. Manuka honey is especially potent; look for UMF 10 to 15 on the label, says Cole. Last, load up on the zinc. Taking an oral supplement within 24 hours of your first symptoms may help you fight them faster, advises the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine; a 2015 clinical-trial analysis bore out its benefits. Just ask your doctor first if you take other meds, to ensure they're safe to mix.

You Lost Your Cool

Snippy cashiers, snarky colleagues, clueless partners—some days feel like a game of dodgeball. Unpleasant face-offs send our blood pressure shooting up, and as we age, ruminating on them can delay its return to normal, a 2016 University of California, Irvine, study found. To calm your nerves and your heart, breathe. Yale University psychologist Emma Seppälä, PhD, suggests alternate-nostril pranayama: Place your right index and middle fingers between your eyebrows, your right thumb on your right nostril, and your right ring and pinkie fingers on your left nostril. Inhale, close the right nostril with your thumb, and breathe out through the left. Then breathe back in through the left and close it with your ring finger; release the right and exhale through it. Continue, switching sides, for five minutes. Yes, it feels a little woo-woo, but it works.

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