The reason this question needs to be asked is because antioxidants are very popular with people who exercise, in order to speed up their post-workout recovery – but recent studies have raised questions about whether antioxidants (in excess) might be counterproductive to exercise.
After perusing through the scientific data available today, the answer is yes – antioxidants do help, but within reason.
Read on to find out why.
How Exercise Produces Free Radicals
We know that antioxidants help fight free radical damage. Here’s why this matters when it comes to exercising: the production of free radicals have been reported to increase anywhere from twofold to threefold as we progress from exercise to exhaustion.
Here’s when and how this happens:
1] When We Produce Energy
When oxygen is used to produce energy, 4-5% is not completely used, and instead, forms free radicals. So as oxygen consumption increases during exercise, free radical production is likely to increase too.1
2] When We Produce Adrenalin
Exercise makes us produce the hormone ‘adrenalin’, which eventually breaks down to form free radicals.2
3] When We Produce Lactic Acid
During intense exercise, the burning sensation we feel in our muscles comes from the production of lactic acid, a process that also forms free radicals.
4] When Our Normal Blood Flow is Restored
When we exercise, blood and oxygen are temporarily diverted to the heart and muscles. The gush of blood flow back to other organs produces a lot of free radicals.3, 4
It’s important to note, however, that we don’t know yet if antioxidants really help with our performance when we exercise. There simply isn’t enough evidence to support that statement.
That said, it’s extremely likely that they do speed up our recovery after a workout. When we exercise, free radicals and lactic acid can cause small damage in our muscles; this damage helps our muscles build but also causes a bit of inflammation, which is believed to be responsible for the soreness that’s experienced a day or two after exercising. The body uses its reserves of antioxidants to get rid of the inflammation, thereby helping with recovery after exercise.
But, Do Antioxidants Hamper Exercise?
Despite the damage they inflict upon our cells, DNA and proteins, free radicals are actually generated for a bunch of reasons.
One of them is that they are signalling molecules; they allow cells to interact with one another.
Scientists believe that this signalling is the key to creating energy in our muscles – which, in turn, affects our performance.
So the concern with consuming too many antioxidants is that they would neutralise the free radicals that help our muscles generate force.
But there are two points about antioxidants that counter this theory:
1] They Work at a Smaller Scale
Recent evidence indicates that antioxidants like lycopene may only be able to target the damage that’s caused by free radicals on a cellular level, where they can then counter inflammation, and are unable to affect the larger processes that help us create energy in our muscles.5-7
Following this logic, antioxidants should not hamper our performance in any way, if consumed in the right amount.
2] Our Body Increases its Antioxidants Reserves, Over Time
Studies have shown that our body gradually increases its reserves of antioxidants when we exercise regularly, in order to cope (which is partly why people who exercise regularly get less sore than those who don’t).
That increased reserve needs to come from the food we eat, which makes the need for more antioxidants in our diet absolutely clear.
So maintaining a balanced diet with plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables is undoubtedly vital when we exercise – and those who struggle with it may find supplementation necessary.
Beyond that, we can rest assured that our body will do what it does best: adapt to changes.
1. Clarkson PM, Thompson HS. The American journal of clinical nutrition 2000, 72(2): 637s-646s.
2. Terland O, et al. Free Radic Biol Med 2006, 41(8): 1266-1271.
3. Verma S, et al. Circulation 2002, 105(20): 2332-2336.
4. LaValle JB, Yale SL. Cracking the Metabolic Code: The Nine Keys to Peak Health. Basic Health Publications, 2004.
5. Davison GW, et al. J Physiol Biochem 2012, 68(3): 377-384.
6. Mason SA, et al. Free Radical Biology and Medicine.
7. Tsitsimpikou C, et al. Food and Chemical Toxicology 2013, 61: 9-13.