Optimal health is achieved through a combination of healthy eating and exercise. But exercise itself isn’t a very healthy act—it causes oxidative stress, dehydration, inflammation, and muscle damage among other strains to your body. It is actually the recovery after exercise that makes your body stronger.
How Exercise Helps Your Body
Regular exercise promotes a healthy heart, brain, and body. Not only does physical activity increase muscle and bone strength, enhance sleep, and build up your body’s antioxidant defenses, it also gives your heart a workout and is good for your mental health. A high resting heart rate increases your risk of premature cardiac death, but when you exercise regularly your heart muscle gets stronger and allows your resting heart rate to decrease. A daily workout also helps increase the production of nitric oxide, which regulates blood pressure and improves blood flow to the heart. While exercise keeps you mentally alert, it also produces endorphins which serve as a natural mood elevator.
With all of the benefits of exercise, it can be hard to believe physical activity can harm your body—that’s where oxidative stress comes in.
What is Oxidative Stress?
While we need oxygen to live, high concentrations of it are toxic. Oxidative stress can be linked to “virtually every known disease,” because it creates free radicals—substances that generate a chain reaction that damages or kills cells.
Exercise, Oxidative Stress, and Antioxidants
Exercise causes high concentrations of oxygen, which produce free radicals that harm the body. In fact, after just five minutes of moderate exercise there is an “uptick in DNA damage.” Because of the potential damage these free radicals cause to our DNA, the body’s health depends on its antioxidant defenses to block it. But we can’t just expect our body to do all the work without fueling it properly. According to a recent study, the production of free radicals from exercise “can exceed the capacity of the antioxidant defense systems in the body and induce oxidative conditions.”
Foods That Aid in Exercise Recovery and Help Muscle Soreness
Antioxidant-rich foods help your body’s recovery after exercise by reducing inflammation and aiding in the restoration of muscle function. One of the best foods to regularly eat to counteract oxidative stress is watercress. Plant foods in general “average 64 times more antioxidants” than meat products, and watercress is a leafy green vegetable that “possesses one of the highest concentrations of antioxidant vitamins.”
Throw some watercress in a green smoothie the morning before a workout and your body will be better able to defend itself against exercise-induced oxidative stress.
Have sore muscles after a tough workout? Eat some berries! Some of our favorites are blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries.
Not only will berries help prevent the DNA damage brought on by free radicals, they will also reduce the inflammation caused by muscle cell damage. Cherries in particular are great to eat after a workout. They contain “the same enzymes that are inhibited by many common pain medications, such as ibuprofen,” and have a unique anti-inflammatory function that can offer natural pain relief.
What are your favorite antioxidant-rich foods to help recover after a workout? Let us know in the comments below!