Exercise and movement can be an excellent tool to help regulate blood sugar, improve mood, and assist in body composition changes.
However, as with many things in life -- birthday cake, trips to the local pub, halloween candy -- exercise is best approached with a balanced perspective, because too little exercise and too much exercise each have their own set of problems.
Too little exercise
A 2010 study of over 7,000 men tabulated and combined the number of hours each man rode in a car and watched television. The men who rode in a car and watched television for more than 23 hours per week had a 64% greater risk of dying from heart disease than men who were sedentary for less than 11 hours per week.
Let’s break this down – 23 hours per week of sedentary activity, divide that by 7 days per week, and we’re averaging just over 3 hours per day of sedentary activity, which could look like this:
30 minutes watching morning TV
+ 45 minute commute to work
+ 1 hour commute home
+ 1 hour watching TV/scrolling through Instagram & Facebook before bed
3+ hours of sedentary activity
This doesn't seem like an overly sedentary lifestyle, but more studies are showing this general lack of movement comes with a health price tag.
Too much exercise
Here’s where things gets tricky. Too much of a good thing turns into not such a good thing, as with exercise. When we exercise, our body releases endorphins which acts as both a painkiller and a reward system. This is why some folks like to start the day with a workout, or exercise after a tough day at the office. It makes us feel better. However, when does exercise become a crutch? Where is the line between exercising for cardiovascular health, and exercise that turns into inflammation and overtraining?
Researchers followed the health of more than 1,000 joggers and 400 healthy but inactive non-joggers. Between 2001 and 2014, 156 of these study participants died. The researchers found that the death rate of light joggers was 90% lower than that of the non-joggers, while that of moderate joggers was about 60% lower. Here’s the big surprise: the death rate for strenuous joggers was no different than that of sedentary non-joggers. The most beneficial combination was jogging at a slow or moderate pace two to three times a week, for a total of 60 to 145 minutes across the week.
Over-exercising can also result in the following:
- Gastrointestinal inflammation: exercise preferentially shuttles blood to muscles & away from GI tract which can disrupt intestinal lining
- Inflammation: sprains, strains, bruises, “itises” (tendinitis, bursitis, arthritis)
- Amenorrhea: Loss of menses due to lack of body fat/nutrients
- Osteoporosis and hormone imbalances: In a female athlete, mostly due to amenorrhea, lack of progesterone which contributes to lack of bone growth
If too little exercise is associated with cardiovascular disease and blood sugar dysregulation, and too much exercise is associated with inflammation and hormonal imbalances, where does that leave us?
- Start small. For every 45 minutes of sitting, simply stand up and walk around to help improve blood sugar regulation, triglycerides and blood pressure and avoid the repercussions of a sedentary lifestyle.
- Work up to walking for 30 minutes per day. Then make it 45 minutes.
- Incorporate high intensity interval training (HIIT) a few times per week.
Find the amount, type and intensity of exercise that you enjoy to create a lifelong practice of healthful movement.
Fueling for Exercise
Fueling for exercise is completely dependent on factors like a person’s goals, their current constitution, life situation, type and intensity of their exercise, the list goes on. There’s no one size fits all solution.
3 Unique Butterflies
Let’s consider 3 people with 3 different types of training. Each has a uniquely individual pre-, during- and post-exercise nutrition protocol to support their exercise routine.
Casual Cathy – A mom in her 40s. She’s in general good health and works out 30-60 minutes in a gym doing a mix of cardio and strength training 3 times per week.
Before Exercise: She could eat a larger, balanced meal containing protein, fat and carbs 2-3 hours before exercise (sample meal: 4 ounces of chicken in a salad full of vegetables with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing with a side of 1/2 cup roasted butternut squash) or a snack 1-2 hours before exercise (sample snack: 1 apple with 2 tbsp. almond butter).
During exercise: Water to stay hydrated.
After exercise: A balanced meal containing protein, fat and carbs 1-2 hours after exercise. Starchy carbohydrates and fruits are well- tolerated post-exercise due to our cell’s increased insulin sensitivity (sample meal: 4 ounces shrimp, microgreen salad with red onion, tomatoes and 1/2 sweet potato).
Strong Sam - Strength athlete looking to build muscle. He does HIIT workouts 3-4 times per week and lifts weights 2 times per week.
Before Exercise: He could eat a larger, balanced meal containing protein, fat and carbs 2-3 hours before exercise (sample meal: 5 ounces of steak in a salad full of vegetables with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing and a side of 1 cup rice and ½ apple) or a smaller snack 1-2 hours before exercise (sample snack: 1 hard-boiled egg and 1 banana with 2 tbsp. almond butter).
During exercise: Water to stay hydrated. 10-15 grams of BCAAs per hour of training. Since he’s looking to gain muscle and weight, add a protein and carbohydrate drink like egg white protein powder mixed with a pure, organic juice.
After exercise: A balanced meal containing protein, fat and carbs 1-2 hours after exercise. Starchy carbohydrates and fruits are well- tolerated post-exercise (sample meal: 6 ounces shrimp, microgreen salad with red onion, tomatoes and 1 sweet potato).
Endurance Ed - Endurance athlete training for an ironman. He works out for over 2 hours multiple times per week on long training runs, biking and swimming.
Before Exercise: He could eat a larger, balanced meal containing protein, fat and carbs 2-3 hours before exercise (sample meal: 5 ounces of steak in a salad full of vegetables with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing and a side of 1 cup rice and ½ apple) or a smaller snack 1-2 hours before exercise (sample snack: 1 hard-boiled egg, 1 banana with 2 tbsp. almond butter).
During exercise: Water to stay hydrated. For training sessions over 2 hours, he could consume 15 grams of protein and 30-45 grams of carbohydrate for each hour of activity (banana, egg white protein powder mixed with a pure, organic juice, or a homemade electrolyte drink: 1 qt water; ¼ tsp each salt, baking soda; 2 Tbs honey or maple syrup; 1 tsp ginseng extract).
After exercise: A balanced meal containing protein, fat and carbs 1-2 hours after exercise. Starchy carbohydrates and fruits are well-tolerated post-exercise (sample meal: 6 ounces shrimp, microgreen salad with red onion, tomatoes and 1 cup rice, 1/2 sweet potato).
These three examples show just how individualized fueling for exercise can be, yet at the same time, how similar it is. Eat a balanced meal of real, unprocessed food, both before and after exercise; if you’re pushing it hard, include nutrition during the workout. Be sure to include protein both before and after exercise, and take advantage of cell insulin sensitivity after a workout by including starchy-carbohydrates after a workout.
Pre & Post Workout Nutrition Won’t Trump Overall Nutrition
Nutrition to support exercise shouldn’t only be focused on pre- and post-workout meals. To maximize workouts, our food choices throughout the day influence our work output and should be customized based on the above dependent factors.
Function: Adequate protein promotes muscle maintenance, growth, and repair.
Exercise booster: Protein before and after workouts helps prevent muscle damage and promotes faster recovery.
- Examples: Beef, Egg White Protein, Fish, Game Meats, Gelatin Powder, Pork, Poultry, Seafood
Function: High-quality fats provide energy and reduce inflammation
Exercise booster: Fats before and after exercise neither improve nor diminish performance and slows digestion.
- High-heat examples: Butter, Coconut oil, Ghee, Lard, Palm oil, Tallow
- Low-heat/no-heat examples: Almonds, Avocado, Cashews, Coconut, Macadamia nuts, Pecans, Pumpkin Seeds, Olives, Olive Oil, Walnuts
Function: Starchy carbohydrates provide immediate energy, stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels, and aid in protein synthesis. (Virgin, 2006)
Exercise booster: Starchy carbs before and after workouts preserves muscle & liver glycogen, increases muscle growth by stimulating insulin and prevents protein breakdown.
- Examples: Banana, Beet, Butternut Squash, Carrot, Celery Root, Leek, Onion, Plantain, Potato, Pumpkin, Sweet Potato, Turnip
Function and Exercise booster: Antioxidant nutrients help prevent free-radical activity generated by exercise.
- Examples: Asparagus, Broccoli, Cabbage, Cucumber, Kale, Lettuce, Mushrooms, Spinach, Tomato, Zucchini
Fuel your workout by eating real, fresh food throughout the day, then experiment with the amount and type of food that works best for your body based around your workouts.
Bauman, E., Friedlander, J. Lecture Slides and Textbook from Musculoskeletal Health, Sports Nutrition. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College, 2014.
Hamilton MT, Healy GN, Dunstan DW, Zderic TW, Owen N. Too Little Exercise and Too Much Sitting: Inactivity Physiology and the Need for New Recommendations on Sedentary Behavior. Current cardiovascular risk reports. 2008;2(4):292-298. doi:10.1007/s12170-008-0054-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3419586/
Harvard Health Blog. (2015, Feb). For joggers, less may be more. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/joggers-less-may-201502057687.
National Public Radio. (2011, April). Sitting All Day: Worse For You Than You Might Think. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2011/04/25/135575490/sitting-all-day-worse-for-you-than-you-might-think.
Scheve, Tom. "Is there a link between exercise and happiness?" 22 June 2009. HowStuffWorks.com. Retrieved from http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/exercise-happiness.htm.
Tatiana Y. Warren, M.S. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: May 2010 - Volume 42 - Issue 5 - pp 879-885. Doi:http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2010/05000/Sedentary_Behaviors_Increase_Risk_of.6.aspx