What you eat after exercise matters

Many of the health benefits of aerobic exercise are due to the most recent exercise session (rather than weeks, months and even years of exercise training), and the nature of these benefits can be greatly affected by the food we eat afterwards, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology (http://jap.physiology.org).

“Differences in what you eat after exercise produce different effects on the body’s metabolism,” said the study’s senior author, Jeffrey F. Horowitz of the University of Michigan. This study follows up on several previous studies that demonstrate that many health benefits of exercise are transient: one exercise session produces benefits to the body that taper off, generally within hours or a few days.

“Many of the improvements in metabolic health associated with exercise stem largely from the most recent session of exercise, rather than from an increase in ‘fitness’ per se,” Dr. Horowitz said. “But exercise doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and it is very important to look at both the effects of exercise and what you’re eating after exercise.”

Specifically, the study found that exercise enhanced insulin sensitivity, particularly when meals eaten after the exercise session contained relatively low carbohydrate content. Enhanced insulin sensitivity means that it is easier for the body to take up sugar from the blood stream into tissues like muscles, where it can be stored or used as fuel. Impaired insulin sensitivity (i.e., “insulin resistance”) is a hallmark of Type II diabetes, as well as being a major risk factor for other chronic diseases, such as heart disease.

Interestingly, when the research subjects in this study ate relatively low-calorie meals after exercise, this did not improve insulin sensitivity any more than when they ate enough calories to match what they expended during exercise. This suggests that you don’t have to starve yourself after exercise to still reap some of the important health benefits.

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