We Got the 411 on How To Fuel Your Body for Physical Fitness


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

The beauty of sports and physical fitness is that there is usually something for everyone, whether its swimming, tennis, running, yoga, pilates - the list goes on. I hike regularly, but golf is my favorite way to get some exercise.

We may be trying to get more exercise in our routines to fight obesity, protect heart health, reduce the risk of or better manage diabetes, protect mental health and cognitive function and more.

And one thing is certain. We all need proper ‘fuel’ to be physically fit and perform well at whatever activity we choose.

To put it simply, we need macronutrients (which are necessary in larger quantities) and micronutrients (necessary in smaller quantities). Both are equally important.

Macronutrients include protein, carbohydrates, fats and water. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. All together, these are six essential nutrients we need to live and be physically and mentally fit.

Much has been written about the importance of macronutrients and their importance to physical activity.

So let’s take focus on micronutrients and their relation to exercise and physical activity.

“Exercise stresses many of the metabolic pathways where micronutrients are required, and exercise training may result in muscle biochemical adaptations that increase micronutrient needs,” according to this in depth Medscape article.

“Routine exercise may also increase the turnover and loss of these micronutrients from the body. As a result, greater intakes of micronutrients may be required to cover increased needs for building, repair, and maintenance of lean body mass in athletes.”

The report states that common vitamins and minerals of major concern to athletes include:

  • Vitamin D.

This vitamin is critical for strong, healthy bones. And calcium would be useless without vitamin D, because vitamin D is necessary for adequate calcium absorption. With brittle, frail bones, we would definitely have issues working out and playing sports. We would also be at risk for breaks and fractures which would take us out of the game (pun intended) for quite some time.

According to Medscape, “Athletes who live at northern latitudes or who train primarily indoors throughout the year, such as gymnasts and figure skaters, are at risk for poor vitamin D status, especially if they do not consume foods fortified with vitamin D.”

You can increase your vitamin D levels by spending time in the sun, eating vitamin D-fortified foods and/or taking supplements.

  • Vitamins C and E, the mineral selenium and beta-carotene.

(I grouped these micronutrients together for a reason).

Medscape says, “The antioxidant nutrients, vitamins C and E, β-carotene, and selenium, play important roles in protecting cell membranes from oxidative damage. Because exercise can increase oxygen consumption by 10- to 15-fold, it has been hypothesized that long-term exercise produces a constant ‘oxidative stress’ on the muscles and other cells leading to lipid peroxidation of membranes.”

Clearly, working out is great for you, but it does put some stress on the body. This is why you have to fuel your body and give it what it needs to repair itself.

Foods rich in vitamin C include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, cantaloupe, spinach, bell peppers, kiwi, strawberries, mango, kale and papaya.

Almonds, spinach, sweet potato, avocado, wheat germ and butternut squash are delicious foods that contain vitamin E.

Nutritionists love to tout Brazil nuts for their high selenium content. Just one large nut can have 140 mg of selenium (which is more than twice the recommended daily amount!) - Oysters, whole grains and meats also contain selenium.

Beta-carotene is essentially vitamin A. It is a pigment found in plant foods, like carrots and sweet potatoes, that gives these foods their beautiful orange color. The body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A.

There are a total of eight B vitamins: B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, B7 (biotin), B12 and folate.

These vitamins are so critical, because they help your body make red blood cells (particularly folate and B12) and energy from the food you eat. Red blood cells are important, because they carry oxygen from your lungs to your body’s cells. And the amazing things we can do as athletes would not be possible without sufficient oxygen.

(Get this: there are an estimated 37.2 trillion cells in the body at maturity, according to the American Council on Exercise. So keep in mind, you have a lot of cells to take care of and feed!).

B vitamins also help with building and repairing muscle tissue. These vitamins also assist in maintaining the central nervous system (which includes the brain). And if your brain is not functioning at its best, your athletic performance will certainly suffer.

And ladies keep in mind…

B2, B6, B12 and folate tend to be the B vitamins female athletes are low in, especially those who are vegetarian (a lack of B12 and B6 may cause anemia and reduced endurance performance). Nori is a great dietary source of B12 for vegetarians. And some foods that contain B vitamins include fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy, leafy green vegetables, beans and peas. Some cereals and breads also have added B vitamins.

The minerals iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium are often low in the diets of athletes (especially females).

  • Iron.

“Iron is required for the formation of oxygen-carrying proteins, hemoglobin and myoglobin, and for enzymes involved in energy production,” reports Medscape.

“Oxygen-carrying capacity is essential for endurance exercise as well as normal function of the nervous, behavioral, and immune systems.” And a severe deficiency in iron may cause anemia.

Furthermore, “Iron deficiency, with or without anemia, can impair muscle function and limit work capacity.” On top of this, reversing iron deficiency anemia can take 3-6 months! Vegetarians and regular blood donors, need to be especially proactive about making sure they get adequate iron.

To see a wide variety of iron rich foods, read here.

  • Calcium.

Along with vitamin D, calcium is key for strong, healthy bones. What you may not know is that it is also critical for muscle contraction, nerve conduction and normal blood clotting.

For foods rich in calcium, read here.

  • Zinc.

This mineral helps with the growth, building and repair of muscle tissue. Zinc is also very important for a healthy immune system (and we all know how hard it is to workout when we feel under the weather, even if it is just a minor cold).

According to Medscape, “Zinc status has been shown to directly affect thyroid hormone levels, BMR [basal metabolic rate], and protein use, which in turn can negatively affect health and physical performance.”

Lamb, pumpkin seeds, grass fed beef, mushrooms, chickpeas, spinach and chicken are all foods that contain zinc.

  • Magnesium.

I don’t like to play favorites when it comes to my nutrients, but magnesium is probably one of the most important nutrients.

This mineral is an important cofactor for hundreds of processes and reactions in the body, including energy and muscle and nerve function (including the heart muscle). It is also a powerful antioxidant, so it may help fight some of the oxidative stress exercise may put on the body.

“Magnesium deficiency impairs endurance performance by increasing oxygen requirements to complete submaximal exercise,” Medscape reports.

“Athletes in weight-class and body-conscious sports, such as wrestling, ballet, gymnastics, and tennis, have been reported to consume inadequate dietary magnesium.”

Foods containing magnesium include spinach, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, kefir, almonds, black beans, avocado, figs, dark chocolate and bananas.

So what if you cannot get all of these nutrients from food?

This is where supplementation comes in. There are many supplements on the market, and it is important that you identify good quality supplements that will be absorbed by your body.  So work with a competent healthcare professional to do so.

Some people, including high-performance athletes, may be looking for supplements to enhance their exercise performance as opposed to correcting a deficiency. It is important to note that in some instances, an excess of certain nutrients may cause health issues. Too much of anything can be just as bad as too little.

As a result, it is really important to get a comprehensive nutrient test. This is the only way to know where you stand nutritionally. And if you are imbalanced, you can make relevant tweaks to your diet and maybe also consider taking good quality supplements.

“A complete nutritional assessment should be undertaken before decisions regarding supplement use are made [in regards to boosting athletic performance],” according to a recent report from a reputable medical journal.

Finally, if you are overweight and not used to being physically active, working out can be a challenge. But if you focus on nutrition, being physically active will be easier. Many of the nutrients we discussed in detail in this blog may also help with weight management. Read here to learn how you can prevent nutritional deficiencies from sabotaging your weight loss goals.

And if you want to try working out like an Olympian, read here.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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