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If you have recently increased your activity levels, you no doubt want to know what you should eat to support your exercise sessions. For recreational activity, there?s no need to increase your overall calorie intake, and if you are trying to lose weight, this is a good way to enhance your success. Besides following a well-balanced diet, you may already incorporate suitable foods before physical activity(1). But what should you be eating after exercise? Eating well post-exercise aids recovery, helping you to resume activity at your next workout without any problems, making sure that exercise becomes a regular part of your life. Here we take a look at the question of what to eat after exercising, as well as other strategies to help your body fully recover from exertion.
Suitable snacks after exercise
A small bowl of cereal is a great snack. How about in this brilliant bowl? During physical activity your muscles use up their stores of glycogen, a type of carbohydrate that fuels your muscles. A snack containing carbohydrate after exercise is therefore a good idea to replenish your glycogen stores(2). While trained athletes need to worry about the amount of carbohydrate they eat after exercise, when exercising for fun and to increase your fitness levels, this isn?t something you need to worry about. As well as carbohydrate, your snack should contain a source of protein(3). This protein helps your muscles to recover from exercise, as even if you cannot feel any pain, tiny tears can occur to your muscles when you work out, and as your muscles are largely protein, this is essential for repair. Healthy snacks that include both carbohydrate and protein include fruit and yoghurt, dried fruit and nuts, a smoothie that contains fruit and dairy, crackers with cheese, a small bowl of cereal with milk, or a small sandwich.
Including foods rich in antioxidants post-exercise, such as fruit, nuts, wholegrain cereal or wholegrain bread, is beneficial. During exercise your body produces extra free radicals, which are reactive molecules that have the potential to damage cells within your body and may contribute to delayed onset muscle soreness. As antioxidants counteract free radicals, athletes often take antioxidant supplements, but there?s no need for you to do so, as you can get all the antioxidants you need from your diet ,without exposing yourself to high dose supplements that can produce side-effects and may interact with other medications you take (4). Even dark chocolate, which is high in antioxidants, may be useful after exercise to reduce free radicals(5). You might be surprised to see items such as chocolate and cheese advocated as a post-exercise snack. If you limit dairy produce, meat or other higher fat foods, as you?re concerned about its saturated fat content, there?s no need to. Low-fat dairy produce and lean meat contain little saturated fat and new research now suggests that saturated fat may not be as bad for our health as previously thought(6). Dairy foods are additionally a good source of calcium and meat provides iron, making both a healthy inclusion within our diet.
As this snack should be eaten within two hours of exercise, if your next meal is due, you can just have that in place of an extra snack. This is a good approach if your aim is weight loss.
What to drink
Grab a lucozade or other sports energy drink
As well as eating shortly after exercise, it?s important that you drink enough fluid following physical activity to replenish your losses through sweat. Fluid requirements vary from person to person, but you should start drinking before you feel thirsty, as thirst is a sign of dehydration. For activity lasting less than an hour, water is usually adequate for rehydration. However, for longer sessions of exercise or after a particularly intense session, you may need a sports drink to replaces salts such as sodium, potassium and magnesium. Interestingly, chocolate milk, which combines carbohydrate, protein, fluid and electrolytes, helps recovery more effectively than sports drinks (7). If you want to drink alcohol the same day as exercising, you should be careful, as it can take several hours to fully rehydrate and alcohol has a dehydrating effect, so you should wait at least three hours before consuming alcohol (8).
Other ways to promote recovery
Don?t forget the cool-down phase after a session of activity. This only needs to last five minutes, but by gradually reducing the intensity of exercise, this stops blood pooling in your legs and allows more efficient clearance of lactic acid from your muscles (9). After this cool-down, stretch out, as this reduces muscle cramps, tightness and soreness following activity (10). However, if your muscles feel sore after exercise, taking a warm bath is a helpful way to ease your symptoms (11), so that you?re ready for your next exercise session.