Fuel Up

By Sharon Naylor

December 23, 2013 5 min read

One of the questions exercisers often ask their trainers is: Should I exercise on a full or empty stomach?

It's a common misconception that exercising on an empty stomach means the fat you burn comes straight from your body's stored fat deposits, as opposed to burning just the food in your stomach and essentially getting nowhere. "This is a myth that many people still follow, believing that working out on an empty stomach will burn more fat. Your body needs fuel to move, lift and run. Working out on an empty stomach will make both your body and brain cranky," says Petra Kolber, a fitness expert and trainer at online workout site FitnessGlo who has starred in more than 12 top-selling fitness videos.

"While you will not want to eat a three-course meal, eating a sensible snack before your workout will only improve your performance and your exercise experience. In addition, working out after eating a nutritious snack has the following benefits: It can boost recovery and strength gains. It can help you sustain longer, more intense workouts. It can help you avoid low blood sugar. You will just be more pleasant during your workout."

So, the answer is to eat for fuel so that you can complete a full workout, rather than giving up after five minutes because your energy stores are drained. Fitness expert Patricia Friberg says, "Being completely empty may leave you feeling depleted, lightheaded and unable to perform."

What should you eat and when? Alex McLean, FitnessGlo's top trainer, suggests eating "snacks or meals that contain carbohydrates and proteins 90 minutes before workout time" so that your body has the chance to absorb the nutrients and generate energy. "If you don't have that 90-minute window before your workout class or personal trainer session," McLean says, "choose foods that can be digested easily."

Trainer Jeffrey Scott brings up the blood sugar factor. "Eating before your workout stabilizes your blood sugar so that you feel stronger for longer and are less likely to feel dizzy or faint."

With the experts' focus on the body's need for energy and the ability of healthful snacks to provide that energy, you can solve your full vs. empty stomach concerns by reframing your understanding of food as a good thing and not the enemy. Food delivers nutrients and hydration: fuel to keep your body and mind functioning at their peak levels of performance. It's when you think of food as nothing but fat or calories to burn that you can make mistakes with your pre-workout choices.

Fitness pro Denise Klatte points out that muscles need glycogen to get stronger and more defined. "Working muscles require glycogen (stored carbohydrates in the muscle) and other nutrients for contraction and endurance." This might explain why your practice of working out on an empty stomach didn't deliver the improvements you desired: Your body didn't have the building blocks to create those improvements. It may seem odd if you've been operating under the empty-stomach misconception for years, but eating before a workout delivers better results, faster and more efficiently, which can keep you motivated to stick to your fitness regimen.

In addition to having a healthful snack or light meal prior to your workout, Klatte urges you to keep hydration in mind. Your muscles need good hydration to function and repair themselves, and your body and brain need plenty of water to create energy and help you heal. And it's not just that bottle of water. Dietary choices -- foods like watermelon and greens -- also deliver hydration to your body's systems. A nutritionist can provide you with a customized list of both energy-producing and hydrating foods to enjoy before your workouts.

Why customized? And why a nutritionist? While you're taking care of your body with fitness, the other half of the wellness equation is nutrition. A nutrition expert can personalize food choices to your health issues, such as advising on iron-rich foods or low-glycemic foods. An improved diet can then make you feel even better before, during and after each of your workouts. With proper nutrition, you'll reach your goals all the more efficiently, without the slow progress of working out with a poorly fueled body and mind.

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