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Nutrition for Your Active Lifestyle

posted May 29, 2015, 6:41 AM by Julia Quam   [ updated Nov 4, 2015, 12:37 PM ]
So, you’ve decided to start working out. You know that good nutrition is key to fueling your new active lifestyle, but you may be confused about what you should be eating and drinking. Do you need to eat more protein? What about sports drinks? Should you be avoiding carbs or carb loading?

If you’ve tried to research these questions online, you may have found conflicting information. One reason for this may be that nutrition recommendations differ significantly for people engaged in a general fitness program vs. more serious athletes. The first step when trying to figure out which eating regimen will best support your fitness goals is to consider the intensity of your fitness program. If your workouts typically last less than an hour, you are engaging in a “general fitness program” and your nutrition needs can be met with an overall healthy diet. Using MyPlate as a guide is a great way to make sure you’re eating a balanced diet: focus on lean protein, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.  For general fitness, you don’t need to worry about eating extra protein or carbohydrates—if you follow MyPlate, you’ll get what you need.

Additionally, if you’re exercising for less than an hour, water is all you need to drink. Sports drinks are not necessary, and in fact, aren’t recommended because they are high in sugar and contain excess calories. To figure out how much water to drink, the best thing to do is to weigh yourself immediately before and right after exercise.  For each half pound you lose, you need to drink 8 ounces (1 cup) of water. For example, if you lose 1.5 pounds during your run, you need to drink 3 cups of water when you get home.

If you engage in more intense training sessions of longer than an hour, you are considered a “serious athlete” and nutrition becomes more important. A full review of the nutrition recommendations for serious athletes is beyond the scope of this blog post, but key considerations include:

  • Carbohydrates: If you’re exercising for more than an hour, you need to eat or drink something with carbohydrates before, during, and after exercise. Your body can only store a limited amount of carbohydrates, so it’s important to eat them before and during a long workout so you don’t run out of fuel. Additionally, consuming carbohydrates after a workout replenishes your stores. Interestingly, while general nutrition advice recommends complex carbohydrates like whole grains, simple carbohydrates like sugar may actually be more effective before, during, and after exercise because they are more quickly absorbed.
  • Sodium: It is also important to replenish sodium during workouts that last longer than an hour because you lose sodium in your sweat. Sports drinks are a convenient way for serious athletes to replenish carbohydrates and sodium during and after a workout.
  • Protein: Serious athletes may need to consume 1.5 to 2 times more protein than the general population; however, it’s important to not overdo it on protein at the expense of eating enough carbohydrates. Additionally, your post-workout snack should include protein to help repair your muscles. 

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ website is a great source for more specific information about protein, carbohydrate, and calorie needs for endurance athletes. For more in-depth information about how the serious athlete should fuel before, during, and after exercise, visit the American College of Sports Medicine’s website

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