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Exercise and Food

By Charlie Greene

One thing the Covid scare has done to me is to make me more conscious of my ever expanding waistline. My daily walks along Boracay’s beautiful White Beach were curtailed somewhat as I am over 60 years old and officially was not allowed out. Fortunately, these restrictions have now been relaxed, so it’s back to getting fit and eating well again.

Our bodies need calories for hundreds of bodily functions like breathing and moving and so on, and the calorie intake we need just to stay alive (called the resting metabolic rate) is far greater than what we burn off when running on a treadmill for half an hour. In fact, it’s estimated that 85% of our calorie intake is used by our bodies just to function.

Reducing our calorie intake does not actually reduce our activity levels in any way, since our body still performs all the same functions it usually does in order to stay alive; it just makes our body more effective and efficient. What happens is that our body slows its metabolic rate down in order to function more economically. But this also means that if you then revert to eating like before, you pile on the weight quicker.

“Eat to live, don't live to eat” is an old saying which has significant meaning in this context. Even though humans have elevated eating to an art form way beyond what is needed for survival, food is essentially just fuel to enable our bodies to function at an optimum level, and this is how we should treat it.

Breakfast is often said to be the most important meal of the day since it replenishes your blood sugar level after sleep and keeps you from becoming lightheaded and lethargic. You should pack some protein, preferably lean, into all your meals and snacks since it is essential for building and repairing muscles, and eat the right carbohydrates, since carbs are your main source of energy. You should also drink lots of water, since hydration allows your body to function properly and helps you avoid over-eating.

Ideally avoid processed foods since the processing may reduce nutrient levels and use undesirable chemicals like preservatives as well as anything with too much saturated fat, which increases the amount of cholesterol in your blood. Also avoid sugar, which increases the risk of obesity and tooth decay, and salt, which raises your blood pressure.

You should eat a balanced diet based on meals with high-fibre starchy foods, like potatoes, bread, rice or pasta, and try to go for the wholegrain or wholemeal varieties (like brown rice or brown bread), vegetables (preferably grilled), good protein in the form of dairy products, eggs, chicken, fish or beans, and unsaturated oils and spreads. And make sure you eat your five portions of fruit or veg a day.

At the risk of taking all the fun out of eating, the way to take it to the next level and really get the most out of what you eat is by thinking about food in a scientific way. Think of it specifically as fuel, and what you need to eat before, during and after particular activities. It’s not just about eating healthy foods; it’s about choosing the right foods at the right time.

Before doing any exercise, it is important to top up your fuel supply to avoid getting lightheaded and dizzy, or even nauseous, and then injuring yourself. Timing is also important. If you are going to eat a full meal, you should do so two or three hours before exercising. Ideally, you will also eat something light around 45 minutes before exercising, so digestion is well under way when you start, and it should be a snack based on carbs with a bit of protein. An energy bar right before exercising is okay as a means of giving you a mild sugar rush to get you going.

Carbs are a good source of energy because they break down into glucose and enter the muscle cells, which then store it in the form of glycogen. Simple carbs, such as brown rice, fruit, yoghurt, crackers, a rice cake, toast or granola bars, are best since they are easy to digest. Just as a car needs gas to move, your body needs carbs to power through your fitness regime.

Also, some protein, such as fish, boiled eggs, milk or chicken, is needed to help muscles repair themselves during rest periods (especially if you are doing weight training). Nuts provide heart-healthy fats and nutrients, and fruits provide vitamins, minerals and natural sugar. As always, make sure you are hydrated since water helps you avoid muscle cramps or spasms.

It is not really necessary to eat during a workout. However, if that workout is more than one hour long, you should try to eat something light - no more than 100 calories - every 30 minutes or so. Ideal snacks are things like a banana, yoghurt, or raisins, and of course water.

All of the above needs to be taken with a pinch of salt (not literally). While it is not essential to make a whole science out of what you eat (other people have done that so you don't have to), and you do not really need to start weighing up foods to determine the exact grams of each source, it is definitely worth thinking about it in order to best combine exercise with diet. This way you get the best from both.

Of course, it is still important to actually enjoy your food, so make it tasty. But food is fuel after all, so it’s also important to pay attention to the quality of the fuel you put inside your body. Eat well, exercise better.


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