This sports nutrition guide is packed with helpful tips for fueling exercise, including benefits that have nothing to do with burning calories.
This time of year, it’s way too common to hear about exercise as a necessary evil for too much pumpkin pie.
To set the record straight, you never need to exercise to “burn off” your food. Your body needs regular nourishment and movement regardless of what you ate in the past (or what you plan to eat in the future).
In the world we live in, it’s easy to forget there are so many important benefits of movement that have nothing to do with burning calories. That’s why I want to bring on my intern, Mandy, to set the record straight. She’s an athlete and registered dietitian, and she has so much to teach us about joyful movement. Here she is!
Growing up playing sports and being active daily lead me to identifying myself as an “athlete.” Having the opportunity to move my body daily while participating in sports or getting outside for walks/hikes keeps my physical, mental, and emotional health at an optimal level. What a lot of people are unaware of is that where you are active makes a difference to your overall health, so choose wisely. I may be biased, but being outside in nature is the best free place to be active!
Why Should You Prioritize Movement?
Daily movement can boost your mood, reduce your risk for disease, and increase strength and endurance.
Did you know only 30 minutes of movement has been shown to improve mood?
Exercise stimulates a variety of chemicals in the brain that are linked to feelings of happiness and calm. Exercise also increases a brain protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is responsible for the growth of nerve fibers controlling mood.
Aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, and biking, makes the brain’s “fight or flight” system less reactive and may reduce severity of anxiety symptoms.
Changes in posture, controlled breathing, and rhythm also affect the brain and may lead to a reduction in depression, stress, and anxiety.
Reduced Disease Risk
Physical activity is associated with improved cholesterol and blood lipid levels, which supports efficient blood flow throughout the body. This reduces risk for cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or stroke.
Regular movement is also associated with decreased risk for type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and some cancers.
Strength and Endurance
Another benefit of regular movement is that it improves your muscle strength and endurance especially when participating in sports. As a volleyball player, increased muscle strength and power in my upper and lower body has helped me to become more effective with my hitting, blocking, and passing. Additionally, lower body strength has helped improve my ability to jump higher while hitting or blocking in matches. Improved endurance levels from incorporating cardiovascular movements (running, swimming or biking) into my daily routine has supported building a stronger base for me in order to complete longer hikes at a moderate/faster pace.
Exercise delivers oxygen and nutrients to the tissues throughout the body, which helps the cardiovascular system work more efficiently over time. This is how you build endurance when you’re active.
Weighted movements (strength training) stimulates bone formation and increases bone density while retaining optimal levels of calcium in your bones.
How to find the type of exercise that works best for you:
I challenge people to brainstorm a variety of activities they truly enjoy, whether it’s solo or with friends.
Having a list of options makes it easy to change it up daily and/or create a personalized combination of exercises to rotate through.
I encourage spacing out the activities throughout the week to avoid burnout or feeling overwhelmed.
It is equally imperative to choose activities that will fit easily into your current daily routine. Exercise should never feel like a chore. Remember to incorporate days off for your body to recover.
The current recommendation for exercise is 150 minutes of moderate intensity activities such as, brisk walking, household chores or dancing or 75 minutes of vigorous activities such as, running, hiking uphill or jumping rope per week.
Tips for Making Exercise More Enjoyable:
- Change your mindset. Think of exercise as a celebration of the body’s amazing capabilities, not as a punishment for overeating.
- Exercise with a friend. The buddy system keeps it fun and holds you accountable.
- Play music. Boost your mood even more with a sing-along.
- Take it outside. There’s ample space for any activity and sunshine is an instant mood booster.
- Choose activities you genuinely enjoy. Exercise doesn’t need to happen in a gym.
Fueling Before, During & After a Workout
Macronutrients are great sources of energy to fuel your workouts, especially carbohydrates and protein.
Carbohydrates are the main fuel source for muscles during workouts. The body converts carbohydrates into glycogen, which muscles use as fuel during activity.
I especially love complex carbohydrates such as, oatmeal, barley, or 100% whole wheat bread because they provide a slower, longer-lasting source of energy than simple carbohydrates such as, pastries, most packaged cereals, or fruit juice.
Eating protein before exercise provides your body with the amino acids it needs to reduce muscle deterioration, make proteins, and stimulate muscle growth.
The body needs fuel to function efficiently, especially during physical activity.
Researchers have found that people who eat breakfast before exercising are able to perform at a higher level.
Eating before a workout helps replenish liver glycogen and stabilize blood sugar levels. To increase energy levels before a workout, eat complex carbohydrates 2-3 hours in advance and simple carbohydrates 30-60 minutes in advance.
Waiting a few hours after eating allows the body enough time to fully digest the meal before vigorous exercise.
Hydration is key. (See below.)
Consuming the right nutrients after you exercise is equally important as fueling before a workout.
Your muscles have used up all of your stored glycogen at this point.
Post workout, the body attempts to replenish glycogen stores, repair, and regrow muscle proteins that were broken down during exercise.
Eating carbohydrates and protein will help the body recover faster and maximize the benefits to daily movement. Choosing easy-to-digest foods such as, cooked fruits or vegetables, eggs or fish will promote faster nutrient absorption.
Try to eat your post workout meal within the first 45 minutes after physical activity if possible.
Protein options: Greek yogurt, eggs, chicken, or tuna
It’s important to drink plenty of water before, during, and after physical activity in order to perform your best.
Every individual has unique hydration needs according to goals and activity.
During exercise, the body loses water and electrolytes through sweat. It’s essential to replenish these after a workout to help with recovery and performance.
Generally, about two hours prior to exercising drink approximately 17-20 fluid ounces.
During your workout, it’s crucial to keep water available. If you’re feeling thirsty, you should be hydrating more often.
For rehydration post workout, keep it simple by drinking a glass of water (maybe two if you sweat a lot).
Moving our bodies daily is vital for physical and mental health.
Think of daily movement as free medicine with almost no adverse side effects. It doesn’t matter what kind of shape you’re currently in, you’ll probably benefit from moving more.
Small changes can lead to BIG benefits. Now, get up and move!
Mandy Mindin is a clinical registered dietitian, currently practicing within the inpatient setting on the ICU and surgical units. She will graduate in December with her master’s degree in Dietetics. Mandy has a strong passion for preventative practices, such as eating a variety of colorful foods while incorporating daily movement. When she isn’t helping individuals reach their optimal health, you can find Mandy either on the volleyball court or hiking in the mountains! Connect with her on her website, Facebook page, or Instagram.