Nutrition for exercise

Over the last few years I have noticed more young people in our area who are exercising seriously – strength training, running and training for competitive events. There has also been a marked increase in the number of older residents who are enthusiastically biking, walking, joining gyms and attending exercise classes.

Exercise is a wonderful medicine. The benefits to overall health and improved brain function have been spelled out in many studies. It is probably the best way to slow the ageing process, and there is even a suggestion that increased activity and better fitness levels are protective against dementia.

However, with any program of physical exercise, our neuromuscular system is being called on to do more work and often unfamiliar work, so it is important to have a plan for training and recovery to minimise the risk of injury or pain.

Also, with exercise, the body naturally needs more and different nutrition to do the extra work. In ancient Greece, athletes were simply advised to consume large quantities of meat to build strength. Today, a complex range of ‘superfoods’, specialised protein powders, energy gels and electrolytes are available to athletes.

I am often asked for advice on sports supplements, and I have seen how the right supplements can greatly enhance the performance of an athlete in a race or in a training environment. But I tend to take a broader view of what the body needs, and I am often fascinated to see the crossover in the application of various sports nutritional supplements. Some supplements can be powerful helpers for the sick and the frail just as much as they help the athlete.

One example is energy gels. These are typically available in small sachets that are very popular with runners, cyclists and other athletes who can easily carry and consume them during exercise. High-end gels like GU Roctane are with a sophisticated mix of nutrients. Roctane contains ornithine alpha-ketoglutarate (OKG) which stimulates protein synthesis and tissue growth. OKG is used by some athletes to increase muscle mass, strength and to maintain muscle volume. When this compound is present together with branched-chain amino acids, carbohydrates that can be rapidly absorbed for energy and electrolyte to assist hydration, it forms a potent fuel to support intense or extended periods of exercise.

But exactly the same matrix of compounds can be a powerful aid for people who are recovering from illness or surgery. It’s also useful in cases of muscle weakness in elderly people. High-end gels like Roctane can help to meet the body’s hydration and energy requirements, and the OKG compound is reported to stimulate the immune system, accelerate the healing of wounds and burns and promote tissue and muscle growth. So, just as these gels help athletes fight fatigue during a competition, they may also help the sick and frail minimise muscle fatigue, which may also help to improve mental alertness. All these things are of great benefit to people before, during and after hospital stays, as well as to people who are sick, recovering from illness or stress and who may be having difficulty re-building their strength.

Even the gel sachet itself is often ideal for the ill and the frail. The single-serve sachets were designed to be easy to open and use by athletes “on the run,” and so suit people who might not have a helper or kitchen and serving tools handy.

I think it’s just another example of how we shouldn’t try to compartmentalise the various functions of our body. Stress, fatigue, tissue repair and our immune system are going to be involved in one way or another in most of what we do. The immune system for example can use huge amounts of the body’s available energy, and healing is a big drain on the body’s resources. So there will be a crossover in nutritional requirements between meeting the intense demands of sporting activity and coping with illness and recovery. For the body, there are some similarities in recovering from a marathon and recovering from a major illness or surgery.

I suppose you could say that in the end, we are all running in the same long marathon.

Gabriele Mabon is a Chartered Natural Medicines Practitioner registered with Natural Health Practitioners of New Zealand Incorporated and is also a member of the New Zealand Natural Medicine Association. She owns Hibiscus Health Ltd and operates a naturopathic clinic and health food shop in Orewa.

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