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Ask the Naturopathic Doctor

Natural Strategies for Exercise Recovery

Bounce back from strenuous exercise more quickly with these tips

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Q: I’ve heard that it’s not ideal to work out extra hard on the weekend. This is the only time I have for prolonged exercise. What’s the solution? 

Warren L., Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

A: For starters, remember that you don’t have to go to the gym to exercise. Ideally, you want to mix in some extra movement every day—and there are plenty of things you can incorporate into your normal routine when you’re pressed for time.

The 13,000 steps per day idea is a great place to start. Walk everywhere you can. Take the stairs when there is an option. Don’t circle around looking for a parking space—park farther away and walk across the parking lot. The more movement you get during the week, the less you’ll feel compelled to cram it all into the weekend.

Post-Workout Protein

That said, the real issue with strenuous exercise is recovery. And the answer is protein. Postworkout protein helps recovery. This is physiologically undeniable. So instead of snacking on a granola bar after finishing a hike, a bike ride, or a weight-lifting session, mix up a protein powder drink (whey- and pea-based are typically good options, but read the labels: a recovery drink should contain fewer than 10 grams of carbs per serving). A youthful of free-range grilled chicken, a hard-boiled egg, or, my favorite, some wild smoked salmon are other great choices.

Post-Workout Branched Chain Amino Acids

I’m a big fan of Jade and Keoni Teta, brothers who have published articles on the subject of exercise as medicine (see I learned about branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)—leucine, valine, and isoleucine—from them. These are ideally consumed in a 3:1:1 ratio after working out to maximize muscle mass maintenance and stabilize blood sugar, which tends to drop after a workout. This blood sugar dip increases the odds that you’ll grab something full of carbs—which is a bad idea. Best of all, BCAAs promote fat loss because they help maintain metabolically active tissue.

Stretching After Exercise

If you push yourself hard with strenuous exercise over the weekend and typically feel sore on Monday, consider three simple strategies to minimize the pain. First, you need to stretch at least 5 minutes for every 55 minutes that you spend working out, which is especially important immediately after strenuous exercise. Muscles become contracted when they’ve been worked out, and they need to be stretched back out afterward. Allocate time for stretching into your workout schedule. In fact, it’s a good idea to devote two of your daily workouts per week to deep, prolonged stretching sessions. Yoga is ideal.

Epsom Salt Bath or Lotion to Avoid Post-Workout “Burn”

Second, consider magnesium for displacing the by-products of anaerobic respiration. Your muscles have a certain amount of oxygen reserve. But after about 20–40 seconds of intense working out (depending on conditioning), you begin to run out of stored oxygen and start to burn glycogen, which creates pyruvate and hydrogen by-products. In turn, this causes a post-workout “burn.” You can rub a topical magnesium lotion into your skin (focus on the big muscles of the thighs and shoulders) after a shower. Or take an Epsom salt bath if you have the time and inclination. Epsom salts are made with magnesium sulfate, and they are widely available and inexpensive. Put 2 cups into a not-too-hot tub of water and enjoy.

Digestive Enzymes for Micro-Injuries After Physical Activity

Third, take digestive enzymes without food. When taken between meals, enzymes are absorbed intact, and then can help “digest” any tissue debris of the micro-injury caused by hard physical activity. Use 500–1,000 mg of bromelain at bedtime for a few nights after strenuous physical activity. It’s great combined with turmeric,a bioflavonoid with potent anti-inflammatory benefits.

Did You Know?

Stretching 5 minutes for every 55 minutes of exercise can help minimize muscle pain.

Calculating Your Body Mass Index (BMI)

For many of us, exercise goes hand-in-hand with trying to maintain an ideal weight, best measured by Body Mass Index (BMI). Ideally, you want a BMI between 18 (very lean) and 25. In the U.S., doctors consider anyone with a BMI of 30 or above obese. A BMI of 40 or higher is classified as morbidly obese. However, BMIs inching above 25 are not optimal. 

To calculate your BMI, take your height in inches and square it, then multiply your weight in pounds by 703. This will give you a larger number, which you divide by the smaller number—that’s your BMI. 

There is some latitude for bone structure. Take the thumb and ring finger of the left hand and encircle them around your right wrist: If your fingers don’t touch, your bone structure is relatively large; if they just touch, you have a medium frame; and if they overlap, you have a smaller bone structure. If you have a smaller frame, your BMI would ideally be on the lower side of 19–25; conversely, being toward the higher side with a large frame is fine. 

Burn Fat not Carbs

The bottom line for maintaining lean muscle mass is to get your body to burn fat, not carbs, as the primary fuel. That means, in addition to a consistent exercise program, it’s important to feed your body protein and good fats, along with high-fiber, nutrient-dense vegetables. Reserve carbs (grains, squashes, beans) as condiments to complement a meal or snack that is predominantly clean protein, aboveground veggies, and healthy fat (e.g., avocado, salmon, coconut butter, nuts). 

And try not to eat sugar. If you want to have dessert from time to time, fine. But directly after exercise, consume protein, ideally along with BCAAs. The best time to eat dessert is right before exercise, but definitely not after dinner, when your calorie burning is winding down for the day.