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What You Eat After Exercise Matters

exerciseMany of the health benefits of aerobic exercise are due to the most recent exercise session. The nature of these benefits can be greatly affected by the food you eat afterwards.

Differences in what you eat after exercise produce different effects on your body's metabolism.

Specifically, the study found that exercise enhanced insulin sensitivity, particularly when meals eaten after the exercise session contained relatively low carbohydrate content.

Interestingly, when the research subjects in this study ate relatively low-calorie meals after exercise, this did not improve insulin sensitivity any more than when they ate enough calories to match what they expended during exercise.

This suggests that you don't have to starve yourself after exercise to still reap some of the important health benefits.

Enhanced insulin sensitivity means that it is easier for your body to take up sugar from your bloodstream into tissues like muscles, where it can be stored or used as fuel. Impaired insulin sensitivity, also known as insulin resistance is a hallmark of Type II diabetes, as well as being a major risk factor for other chronic diseases.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Jack LaLanne once said:

“Exercise is your king, and nutrition is your queen. Together they create your fitness kingdom."

And as this new study shows, what you eat after your workout can actually influence its positive effects on your body. What the researchers found was that all exercise sessions increased insulin sensitivity.

This was to be expected as exercise is one of the most powerful tools you have available to normalize your insulin levels. This is important because elevated insulin levels are one of the primary drivers for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and weight gain. But the foods you eat are equally important to maintain healthy insulin and leptin levels.

What was more interesting in the study was what happened after their post-workout diets were changed. When participants ate fewer carbohydrates after exercise, this enhanced insulin sensitivity significantly more -- even more so than eating a low-calorie meal.

What this means is that you don’t need to starve yourself after a workout, and in all actuality doing so may slow down your metabolism because your body goes into starvation mode.

Expert Tips on What to Eat After Your Workout

Darin Steen, a personal trainer who is sharing his comprehensive experience in fitness on my new site Mercola Peak Fitness, has shared some of his expert tips on what to eat to get the most benefit from your exercise routine.

Generally speaking, after exercise your body is nitrogen-poor and your muscles have been broken down. That's why you need amino acids from high quality animal proteins like humanely raised organic free range chicken, grass fed beef and eggs, as well as vegetable carbohydrates.

It’s important to combine a quality protein and a carb (veggie type) together in every meal, no matter whether it’s a resistance training day, an interval cardio day, or a non-workout day, and ideally you should adjust the ratio according to your unique nutritional type.

Darin has broken the equation down even further post-workout, and recommends eating a different combination of foods depending on what type of workout you did that day:

Aerobic/Cardio Post-Workout Meal

After a cardiovascular workout (fat loss day), wait 45-60 minutes, and then consume a high-quality source of protein (whole food) and vegetable-type carbohydrate. An example would be a spinach salad and some chicken.

The reason why you’ll want to wait an hour after the session to eat is to ride the fat-burning wave of your cardio session. However, waiting more than an hour is typically too long, and can send your body into starvation mode.

My favorite post cardio meal is a Miracle Whey protein shake, some coconut milk, Organic India Psyllium, and two raw eggs that are blended with a hand mixer.

Resistance Post-Workout Meal

You want your meal after a resistance workout (muscle-building day) to be absorbed rapidly

This is the opposite of what you’ll typically want, because when a meal is absorbed quickly because of refined carbs, there is a good chance your blood sugar will rise too fast, and the carbohydrates will be stored as body fat.

But after a resistance workout, you’ve just primed the pump with an intense workout (with weights), and you have a one-hour window of opportunity to shuttle in nutrients, amino acids, glycogen, and other anabolic nutrients to help repair your damaged muscles.

If you miss this one-hour window, the chances that your muscles will be able to repair themselves, which makes them bigger and stronger, diminish significantly.

So the best post workout meal on resistance training days is whey protein and a higher glycemic (fast released, starchy) carbohydrate, such as a banana. The potassium in the banana seems to help with recovery. The whey protein is already pre-digested so it is absorbed rapidly.

You’ll want to this post-workout meal 15-30 minutes after your intense weight-training session.

My favorite post strength-training meal is the same Miracle Whey protein shake, some coconut milk, and Organic India Psyllium, with two raw eggs, but I add half a banana, and blend with a hand mixer.

Choose Whole Food, Not Sports Drinks or Bars

Americans spend hundreds of millions of dollars on energy drinks and energy bars each year. Bar and drink makers add dozens of elements to these products, including vitamins, minerals, herbs and whey.

However, the active ingredients usually come down to two simple substances: Sugar and caffeine.

When used properly, these products may have some benefits for athletes when they are using intense, high-level training that causes them to lose more than a quart of water in sweat.

However, for most of you, the vast majority of these energy bars and powders only add hazardous toxins, chemicals, and useless calories to your diet. Probably the worst of the worst would be fructose. You simply should avoid this in a sports drink at all costs unless you are losing more than a quart of water in sweat in 30-45 minutes.

The truth is that eating whole, organic and biodynamic foods tailored to your nutritional type is the ticket to optimal performance, whether you’re a professional athlete or a weekend warrior at the gym.

If you have not already done so, I recommend you read through my Nutrition Plan to get started on the path to optimal health, regardless of your current fitness level.

I also recommend, if you find you often resort to processed sports bars in a pinch, that you stock up your pantry with the following post-workout staples now, so they’re ready for you to grab after your next workout:

Beneficial sources of protein include:

  • Organic chicken (dark meat for protein nutritional types)
  • Organic free-range eggs
  • Lean, grass-fed red meat
  • Whey protein
  • Nuts and seeds (preferably raw)

Beneficial sources of carbohydrates include:

  • Virtually any vegetable (limiting carrots and beets, which are high in sugar)
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale or Swiss chard
  • Low fructose fruits like lemon, limes, passion fruit, apricots, plums, cantaloupe, raspberries, Avoid high fructose fruits like apples, watermelons and pears.

Five Principles of Exercise

Your body is an efficient machine, and if you do the same type of exercise day after day, you’ll become quite good at it. However, when exercise becomes easy to complete, it’s a sign you need to work a little harder and give your body a new challenge.

So when you’re planning your exercise routine, make sure it incorporates the following types of exercise:

  1. Aerobic: Jogging, using an elliptical machine, and walking fast are all examples of aerobic exercise. As you get your heart pumping, the amount of oxygen in your blood improves, and endorphins, which act as natural painkillers, increase. Meanwhile, aerobic exercise activates your immune system, helps your heart pump blood more efficiently, and increases your stamina over time.

  2. Interval (Anaerobic) Training: Research is showing that the BEST way to condition your heart and burn fat is NOT to jog or walk steadily for an hour. Instead, it’s to alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods. That is one of the primary reasons I am so fond of the exercises my personal trainer has been showing me.

    This type of exercise, known as interval training or burst type training, can dramatically improve your cardiovascular fitness and fat-burning capabilities.

    Another major benefit of this approach is that it radically decreases the amount of time you spend exercising, while giving you even more benefits. For example, intermittent sprinting produces high levels of chemical compounds called catecholamines, which allow more fat to be burned from under your skin within the exercising muscles. The resulting increase in fat oxidation increases weight loss. So, short bursts of activity done at a very high intensity can help you reach your optimal weight and level of fitness, in a shorter amount of time.

  3. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program.

    You need enough repetitions to exhaust your muscles. The weight should be heavy enough that this can be done in fewer than 12 repetitions, yet light enough to do a minimum of four repetitions. It is also important NOT to exercise the same muscle groups every day. They need at least two days of rest to recover, repair and rebuild.

  4. Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability.

  5. Stretching My favorite type of stretches are active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes.

With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity.

However, exercise programs like pilates and yoga are great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.

You might be aware that I have recently become interested in Ayurvedic medicine, and yoga is an important element of that. In March 2009 I visited the Miraval Health Resort in Tucson and had a great introduction to yoga.

Focusing on your breath and mindfulness along with increasing your flexibility is an important element of total fitness.

So even if a personal trainer is not in the cards for you right now, please watch these sample videos for examples of healthy exercise routines you can do with very little equipment and in virtually any location.