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Workout Wednesday: Why Protein is Essential for Exercise


What comes to mind when you think of the word “protein”? Is it images of bodybuilders? If so, that’s okay. That’s one of the first things that come to mind for many people, and it’s true. Bodybuilders are big into protein.  Protein bars, protein shakes, protein powders–they’re big fans of all of it, and for very good reason.

Here’s the thing, though. If you exercise–even if it’s only for 30 minutes a day–you should be, too. You might not hit the gym for hours at a time, but you still need to be on top of your protein intake. Your health depends on it.

What Protein Is & How It Affects Your Health

Protein is an important part of every cell that makes up your body. It makes up nearly all of your nails and hair, and helps produce hormones, enzymes, and a number of other chemicals in your body. Perhaps the most important fact about protein is that it’s the fuel your body needs to build and repair tissue.

It’s the fuel your body needs to build and repair tissue.

Protein is an essential building block for healthy muscles, yes, but also for healthy bones, cartilage, skin, and blood. It’s essentially a building block for good health.

Protein is considered a macronutrient, which means your body needs a pretty large intake. While your body stores some vitamins, as well as carbs and fat, it doesn’t store protein. Without a reservoir, your body can’t just grab more protein when it needs some. You have to actively replenish your protein levels.

While protein deficiencies are fairly rare–they’re more likely a result of a health condition–it is possible to experience some side effects if your protein levels are lower than they should be. The most common is fatigue/weakness. Because protein is important for proper tissue repair and muscle building, low levels may cause your muscles to start deteriorating. This leads to feelings of weakness and, in some cases, irritability.

The Importance of Protein in Exercise

When you exercise, you’re muscles are undergoing a breakdown. After your workout has ended, your body begins the recovery process in which is repairs and strengthens tissues and essentially prepares them for the next workout. While the type of workout you’ve done plays a role in determining part of the repair process, there’s one thing that your muscles rely on, regardless of workout type.

Protein synthesis, or the creation of new proteins.

The rate of protein synthesis depends on your body’s balance between protein breakdown and protein building. Even though testosterone and growth hormone help this balance a bit, it’s ultimately dependent on your nutrition–including your protein intake.

According to Deborah Shulman, Ph.D., “the goal is to create an environment in your body between exercise sessions that minimizes the breakdown of protein and maximizes protein synthesis.”

What can help do this? Eating and drinking immediately after your workout. Drinks and foods that have a higher glycemic carb content help stimulate an insulin response in your body, which counteracts cortisol in your body. Because cortisol is a key player in protein breakdown, counteracting it helps minimize the protein breakdown process.

It’s important to remember that protein synthesis is still fairly limited after you’ve exercised. This is because of the lack of amino acids in your muscles and the lack of overall energy.  It’s an easily fixable situation. Just add protein to your post-exercise routine!

How Do I Know How Much Protein I Need?

According to WebMD and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, proper protein is as follows:

  • Teenage Boys & Active Men: Three daily servings for a total of seven ounces
  • Children (ages 2-6), Most Women & Older People: Two daily servings for a total of five ounces
  • Older Children, Teenage Girls, Active Women & Most Men: two daily servings for a total of six ounces

Depending on the rate and frequency of your exercise, how much protein you should ingest can differ from these numbers. Regularly active people require a higher protein intake than those living a sedentary lifestyle.

Protein intake numbers are generally calculated using your body weight. Government standards state that 0.8 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight is ideal for healthy adults. (I know, I brought it up again) offers a simple calculator that only takes a minute or so to use. Simply plug in your body weight, click calculate, and you have a protein range (in grams) that is suitable for your body weight. You can find that calculator here.

Watch Kerri Explain the Protein Formula

The Bottom Line

It’s simple: Protein after exercise promotes muscle recovery and growth.

Remember to combine high-quality protein with carbohydrates at every meal, regardless of what your planned workout is for each day.

Dr. Joseph Mercola recommends the following sources of protein and carbohydrates for effective meal planning:

  • Beneficial Sources of Protein: organic chicken, organic/free-range eggs, lean/grass-fed red meats, whey protein, raw nuts and seeds
  • Beneficial Sources of Carbs: Any vegetables (limit your intake of beets and carrots), green/leafy vegetables like kale and spinach, and low fructose fruits such as plums, cantaloupe, lemons, and apricots

high protein foods


Are you a fan of protein smoothies? They’re quick, convenient, and delicious.

If you’re looking for other sources of protein to help in your recovery, some of my favorite products are below:

How do you help your body recover after a workout? We’d love to hear your stories Leave us a comment below!

Featured Image Credit: Boemski via Flickr

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