Most of us aren't professional sports people and are simply trying to live a healthy life, which includes regular exercise. And when we exercise, we want as much energy and zest as possible. So what should we be eating and drinking, how much should we be taking in, and when's the best time to consume it all?
Cara Humphrey is a dietician at the Centre for Sports Medicine in Johannesburg. The basis for having enough energy comes from having a healthy diet in general, she says.
"There's no point in using energy drinks and other products when you're working out if you're not eating healthily the rest of the time," she adds.
"Your basic healthy diet should be moderately high in carbohydrates and low in fat. You need 55-60% carbohydrates, 12-15% protein and less than 30% fat in your diet – and, of course, at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. However, that's not always possible, so I always suggest a multivitamin supplement."
Humphrey explains that what most people forget is that the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of nutrients is formulated according to what we need to prevent a deficiency state, not what we need for optimum health, so it's fine to take in more than what's specified by the RDA.
"Also, since the RDA was formulated, stress levels have gone up, soil conditions have deteriorated, chemical pesticides are used far more, and the UV lights in our stores destroy a lot of the micro-nutrients, as does storage – the longer a food is stored, the less its nutritional value becomes," she says.
All of this means that even if we eat a very healthy diet, we may still be missing out on some vital micro-nutrients.
Humphrey also recommends that women take a calcium supplement regardless of their age. "Women need 1 000 – 1 300mg of calcium a day; as a guide, one glass of milk or a 30g piece of cheese (about the size of a matchbox) contains 300mg.
Most people don't drink four glasses of milk a day, which is what's required, so a calcium supplement, taken at night, is a good idea," she says.
She goes on to say that people who exercise regularly should ensure they take in adequate carbohydrates before working out.
"If you exercise after work, have a snack in the afternoon – fruit, dried fruit, something like that – and don't skip lunch," she says. "Rather have something light, like a sandwich, a simple pasta or fruit salad – you need adequate carbohydrate-containing foods.
If you exercise first thing in the morning you can probably manage without eating anything, because you've been resting, but if you want to eat something, try something small like a banana. Just ensure you have breakfast afterwards."
Humphrey adds that we should be moving away from eating three big meals a day and rather have five mini-meals. She explains that food has a thermogenic effect, which means it boosts your metabolism, so five meals a day will maintain your energy levels and prevent that slump between meals.
The biggest mistake most people make when exercising, she points out, is not eating lunch when they're working out after work. They then feel terrible at the gym and don't know why.
Many people also eat too soon before a work-out. "If you eat just before you exercise, the blood's working hard trying to digest your food, but you also need it so that your limbs and muscles can work, and so what you end up with is cramp," she explains. It's important to allow your body time to digest before you exercise.
Ease up on sugary drinks
Thirdly, people drink energy drinks when they really don't need them – most actually consume more calories than they burn at gym, because they think they should drink an energy drink during a work-out.
"Remember, those drinks are loaded with sugar," cautions Humphrey. "Unless you're exercising more than 60 minutes at a time, you don’t need to drink anything other than plain water. In fact, more than 90 minutes is really when you start to need a carbohydrate-based energy drink. In a normal aerobics class, or a normal work-out of 45 minutes or so, water's more than adequate."
The message is clear – there's no magic formula. The key is to concentrate on living healthily all round, with a daily diet that's low in fat, and high in fibre and carbohydrates, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables – this will ensure you not only have energy for your work-out, but energy for coping with (and enjoying!) life in general.
Can you add to these tips? Share your thoughts on weight loss, exercise and the importance of living healthily.