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Physical Activity and its Relationship to Food

The Benefits of Exercise

Physical activity has a number of benefits for our health and well-being. It has been found to reduce the risk of dementia, depression, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. It also improves bone health, and balance and coordination, to prevent falls. Our sleep quality can improve and feeling of anxiety can be reduced, as well as our blood pressure [1]. 

The NHS suggests that adults between the ages of 19 and 64 should do some type of physical activity every day. They recommend doing at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week, spread evenly over 4 to 5 days a week, or every day.

Some examples of moderate intensity activities are dancing, hiking, pushing a lawn mower, cycling and brisk walking. Examples of vigorous activities are running, swimming, playing football, aerobics, and gymnastics.

Additionally, adults should aim to do some strengthening activities, at least twice a week, that work all of the major muscle groups, and reduce the time that we spend sitting or lying down. Examples of strengthening exercises include yoga, pilates, lifting weights, using resistance bands, bodyweight exercises, heavy gardening and carrying heavy shopping bags [2].

Why is Nutrition Important when Exercising?

Nutrition is important when living an active lifestyle to fuel our bodies and ensure that we are performing at our best. Carbohydrates provide a source of energy for your body, to help you perform at your best. Protein-rich foods aid muscle repair and growth, stimulated by muscle-strengthening exercise. Fats are also used as an energy store and are often required in long endurance activities. You can read more about these macronutrients on our previous blogs on fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

What Should I Eat Before Exercising?

Before a workout it is suggested to eat a meal, or snack, high in carbohydrates and some protein. This is a perfect meal to eat before exercising as consuming carbohydrates helps to increase the energy stores in our muscles. You should aim to consume this meal at least 3-4 hours before exercising. This is important as if you eat too close to the start of a training session you may feel tired more quickly, as your body may not have had enough to time to break down the food into an energy source. If you don’t eat, or eat too long before exercising, you may not perform as well. This is because your body may have to use your fat stores, or other less efficient sources of energy to fuel itself. It is also recommended to avoid eating foods high in fat before exercising as they may cause stomach discomfort.

Examples of high carbohydrate meals are overnight oats, smoothies, sweet potato and chickpeas, and wholegrain pasta salad. 

What Should I Eat During Exercise?

Plenty of water should be consumed in workouts of any duration. However, if you are training for longer than 60 minutes, you should consume a source of quick-digesting carbohydrates and electrolytes. Electrolytes are salts and minerals, dissolved in water, that can be used to replace salts and minerals that are lost through sweat.

Examples of good snacks and drinks to consume during exercise are isotonic sports drinks, milk, dried fruit, cereal bars, and bananas.

What Should I Eat After Exercising?

As soon as possible after finishing a training session, you should aim to eat a meal, or snack, high in protein and carbohydrates. Protein is used to aid muscle recovery and carbohydrates are required to restore the depleted energy stores in your muscles. It is also important to ensure that you rehydrate with water after exercising [3].

Some examples of meals to eat after exercising are peanut butter sandwiches, brown rice and tuna, and chicken and quinoa.

Protein shakes are often recommended as a post-exercise snack, but your protein requirements can easily be met through consuming a healthy, balanced diet.

Top Tips for Exercise and Nutrition

  1. Eat a high carbohydrate meal or snack before exercising.
  2. Eat a meal or snack high in protein and carbohydrates following exercise.
  3. Drink plenty of water during exercise.
  4. Make your own isotonic drink by mixing 200ml of fruit squash, 800ml of water and a pinch of salt. 
  5. Remember that everyday tasks like carrying heavy shopping, mowing the lawn and brisk walking all contribute to your levels of physical activity.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/health-benefits-of-physical-activity-for-adults.html

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/

[3] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-and-drinks-for-sport/ 

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Caroline Hill is a specialist menopause dietitian supporting women making dietary change. Caroline uses her extensive knowledge, skills and expertise of food and nutrition to help women manage their symptoms and weight during menopause. Caroline believes in providing sustainable, individualised, evidence-based advice to women making dietary change.

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