Health experts around the world agree that the foundation of healthy living is a combination of diet and exercise. There are workout regimens and diet fads that can improve your health to varying degrees, but an often overlooked idea is how diet and exercise can work together.
No matter if you’re engaging in heavy cardio, strength training, or low-impact exercises, how you fuel your body is one of the most important components of your workout. Forgoing a meal before high-intensity exercise can make you feel lightheaded and faint. On the other hand, indulging in a rich meal before a workout can often leave you feeling sluggish.
There are entire industries dedicated to finding the next best solution in workout-specific meals. You’ll be hard pressed to walk into a gym and not see shaker bottles full of pre-mixed concoctions. While you can certainly supplement your diet with these shakes and powders, you can find all of the same nutrition and energy in regular food.
We talked with Dr. Jeannette Yuen, MD, Director of Echocardiography at Scarsdale Medical Group, to see what to eat and drink before and after you exercise so you can feel your best.
The number one item you should have on hand before, during, and after a workout is plenty of water.
Another important thing to consider when it comes to fitness-related fuel is timing. Allowing your food time to digest prevents gastrointestinal issues from ruining your workout. It also gives your body a chance to properly support your exercise. “If your body is focused on digesting food, there will be less blood pumping from your heart to your muscles. That’ll cause lactic acid to build up and cause soreness,” Dr. Yuen says.
If you’ve had a full meal a few hours beforehand and are planning on a medium-intensity workout, you don’t necessarily need to prepare with more food. However, if you’re feeling peckish or intend to engage in heavier exercise, you can have a lighter snack about an hour before your session.
In terms of macronutrients, what you put into your body matters. Carbohydrates provide your body with glycogen, which gives your muscles the majority of energy you need during a workout (especially a high-intensity one). It can quickly deplete after prolonged physical activity, which is why marathon runners often engage in “carb-loading” in the days leading up to a race.
Protein is another essential macronutrient to help maximize your fitness routine. Having sufficient amounts of protein in your diet helps to build and strengthen your muscle mass. "Protein doesn’t metabolize as quickly as refined carbohydrates, so it boosts your metabolism and increases the amount of calories you burn," says Dr. Yuen.
Many gym buffs begin or end their workouts with shakes made with protein powder. While ingesting enough dietary protein is certainly important for overall fitness, some studies indicate stocking up on the macronutrient within a certain window of your workout is unnecessary.
The best foods you can eat before a workout combine several different nutrients and sources of energy. Yogurt, nut butters, fruit, and eggs are all foods you can eat in various serving sizes to properly prepare your body for exercise.
One thing Dr. Yuen advises against? Caffeine-packed pre-workout powders. "Caffeine is a diuretic and increases your heart rate," she says. "It'll give you energy, but it'll also raise your heart rate to a potentially dangerous level and dehydrate you before you even start working out"
If you want something besides water, try a drink boosted with electrolytes. "When you sweat, you lose your body's supply of sodium chloride, water, potassium, and magnesium," Dr. Yuen says. "If you’re exercising in a hot climate or doing a really intense workout, you’ll need an electrolyte drink, ideally one that’s low in sugar."
Once you're done working out, you'll need to replenish some of the calories you lost to avoid hitting a wall later in the day. While you should immediately hydrate after a workout, you should still wait at least an hour before eating. "You want to regulate your blood flow before reactivating your digestion," says Dr. Yuen. She recommends lean proteins, fruit, vegetables, and other easy-to-digest foods after a workout.
Need pre-workout snack inspo? Here are some of our favorite nutritious foods to eat before we break a sweat:
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