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Fuelling your body for exercise

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There’s no doubt that exercise is great for us, but what should we eat to get the most of our workouts? And does the timing of our munching matter?

More and more often exercise is being prescribed by GPs to help with all sorts of ailments ranging from depression to type 2 diabetes. Did you know you can lower your cholesterol and your blood pressure and improve your mood just by moving more? We shouldn’t forget to fuel our bodies though, both before and after exercise, with the right types of foods.

When we exercise, our body needs energy fast. To get this energy, our muscles turn to the carbohydrates stored within them. This carbohydrate (known as glycogen) can be rapidly converted into energy and used by the muscles to keep us running, swimming, cycling etc. If the exercise is intense or lasts an hour or longer, the muscles will begin to break themselves down into amino acids and will use that for fuel as well. What this means is that when we think about food and exercise, we need to be thinking about carbohydrates and protein (the source of amino acids).

Between 1-3 hours before exercise try to have a small meal made up mainly of healthy sources of carbohydrates and protein. Think: a chicken sandwich with wholemeal bread. The carbs (wholemeal bread) are needed so the muscles have their preferred energy source when required. Marathon runners describe the sensation of running with their carbohydrate stores on empty as “hitting the wall”. We want to avoid this if we want exercise to be enjoyable! The protein (chicken) is needed so that the body has access to plenty of amino acids already circulating around the bloodstream, and therefore doesn’t need to break down the muscles quite so much. Essentially eating some protein pre-exercise helps protect our muscles from themselves.

After exercise, the goal is to help your body restore and repair your muscles, so they build back stronger. Again, protein and carbs will help with this. While we try to eat a little while before exercising so our food can be partially digested, after exercise we want to give our body what it needs as soon as we can. The sooner the body has the fuel required, the sooner it can get to work building the muscles back stronger, and the quicker we recover.

So, there you have it. To get the most out of your workout you need to fuel your body with the right foods, at the right time. Consuming the bulk of your daily calories around the times you’re most active will give your body all it needs to get the most out of exercise and help you build up strength.

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