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What is Oxidative Stress, and what can you do about it?

Friday, November 4, 2016
Author: 
Corey Evans B.S., CSCS, CISSN, USATF Level I

Regular exercise has been proven, in most circumstances, to improve health and prolong a person’s overall quality of living. There are many benefits from exercise that have been shown to occur time and time again; some even occur as soon as exercises is starts! However, one not-so-talked-about detriment from exercise is known as Exercise Induced Oxidative Stress.

This is not the same stress that is experienced during a hectic day at work, or deciding between chocolate cake now, or a beach body later. Exercise induced oxidative stress results in inflammation, and is our bodies immunological response to muscle fatigue, damage, and exercise. It is actually very similar to the response to injuries, like muscle strains and tendon ruptures, only to a lesser degree.

When anyone works out in any way, trauma is done to the involved tissues and systems resulting in the release of reactive oxygen/nitrogen species (aka free radicals/oxidants) which can further damage the involved tissues. Believe it or not, this process is required for normal force production within a muscle, but high build-up of these reactive species plays a role in exercise induced muscle fatigue and weakness during a workout. The most troublesome issue with this buildup though, is that exercise induced free radicals can remain present in the body for up to 72 hours post exercise. This slows down muscle recovery. Eating highly inflammatory foods (salty foods, animal fats, processed sugars/junk food etc.) can also magnify these effects and further increase recovery time between workouts.

How can you fight this process? Because exercise induced oxidative stress is produced from muscular contractions there is nothing inside the gym that can be done to alleviate it. However, nutritional steps can be taken that may reduce the levels of free radicals, and help you bounce back from muscle damage in time for the next workout.
The first step is to get a good post workout meal free of inflammatory substances. You may have the right idea by grabbing a chicken sandwich from your favorite fast food restaurant after your workout, but because of the high content of sodium and inflammatory fats, that sandwich could actually hurt your recovery more than the protein and carbs may help. A better food option post workout would be leaner meats like whole chicken breast or fish, and root vegetables or fruit, or a protein shake with water instead of milk.

Next, eat colorful fruits and vegetables daily. These foods are high in antioxidants that help reduce oxidative stress of all kinds, including that caused by exercise. Because exercise induced free radicals can exist for up to 72 hours after exercise it is important you make these part of your daily meals if you are exercising regularly. Good choices are spinach, kale, carrots, blueberries and pumpkin.

Lastly, green tea, and other similar drinks containing tocopherols (a powerful antioxidant) have shown to help reduce the presence of free radicals. As long as they don’t also contain lots of sweeteners and sugar.

If you regularly exercise, there is nothing you can do to prevent exercise induced oxidative stress. However, proper nutritional considerations can be taken to help offset its damages, and may even result in faster recover times between workouts, which can allow you to train more often and more effectively.

*A caveat is that because low levels of reactive oxidative species are required for muscle force production, too many antioxidants can be detrimental to exercise. Likewise, you do not have to avoid inflammatory foods like the black plague in order to reduce inflammation.