Are there any benefits of exercising on an empty stomach?

Surely you already know that a sedentary life is the enemy of health. They probably also believe that, when exercising, you should eat first – “replenish” your energy stores – and then move on. And they are not wrong, because this is what is generally recommended.

However, performing physical activity on an empty stomach may have some benefits in apparently healthy people whose metabolism has begun to change due to a sedentary lifestyle. Walking on an empty stomach is a popular trend that we will analyze in this article from a health perspective, rather than focusing on sports performance.

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Designed to hunt on an empty stomach

Man walking outside the park, people adopting healthy lifestyle

Exercise should be done in moderate amounts on an empty stomach.

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But before getting into the matter, let us tell you that this exercise should be considered only if we are going to do moderate physical exercise such as walking, doing housework, practicing yoga or any other low intensity activity. Regarding fasting, it is suggested to exercise a few hours after eating (before breakfast in the morning) or just before the next meal.

The method of exercising without eating is scientifically supported by the physiological cycle of activity-reward-rest. According to evolutionary medicine, humans are designed to roam (hunt) on an empty stomach. Or, in other words, traveling long distances on an empty stomach in search of food.

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The desire to eat produces orexin, a neuropeptide that keeps us awake and stimulates movement. Furthermore, orexin has been found to be related to certain areas of the brain, which explains the famous phrase “You are smarter than you are hungry”. That is, the body is ready to be alert and go in search of food in case of slight hunger. On the other hand, when we eat and get a reward, we start feeling sleepy: the body asks to rest, digest and take advantage of all the nutrients.

This physiological rhythm of work-reward-rest was defined years ago by researchers Manu Chakraborty and Frank Boothby, and is today considered a potential method of intervention to improve health.

Metabolic syndrome outbreak

To explain its potential benefits, we must start by explaining what metabolic syndrome is. It is characterized by progressive changes in metabolism related to lifestyle habits such as stress, sedentary lifestyle and consumption of ultra-processed food, although there may also be a genetic predisposition.

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Sedentary lifestyle and consumption of ultra-processed food influence the development of metabolic syndrome.

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Over time, these bad habits can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia (high cholesterol) or type 2 diabetes, which are risk factors for premature death in the developed world. According to the World Health Organization, about 40 million people die from these causes every year.

Metabolic syndrome begins to develop long before clinical symptoms appear; When these manifest themselves, it is already difficult to reverse the changes. Therefore, what we do today will determine our health tomorrow.

Increases metabolic flexibility

The first benefit of exercising on an empty stomach is that it can improve metabolic flexibility, the name given to our ability to generate energy through a variety of pathways. Because depending on the intensity of exercise, the body can use fat or glucose as an energy source, although this process is quite complex.

A sedentary lifestyle and poor diet can cause a loss of this elasticity, making it difficult to use fat as a source of energy. People suffering from metabolic diseases often have problems with beta-oxidation of fat deposits and rely primarily on glucose.

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Early morning walking boosts metabolic flexibility

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Well, walking at moderate or low intensity on an empty stomach will force the body to mobilize fat stores, which aids in the maintenance of this energy pathway. Thus, exercising on an empty stomach may progressively improve general health, promote metabolic flexibility, and even induce anti-inflammatory processes.

Helps improve insulin sensitivity

Secondly, it is important to consider the role of insulin, which is the hormone responsible for storing blood sugar in the body’s reserves. A prolonged increase in insulin may make it difficult to obtain energy from fat, as it may block this metabolic pathway.

Thus, when we take in too much glucose, the body adapts by preferring its use over fat. A sedentary lifestyle and frequent consumption of foods rich in saturated fats and carbohydrates gradually increases insulin levels, which can lead to resistance to the hormone and the development of diseases like type 2 diabetes.


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Not all people feel the same feeling of hunger when exercising

Walking on an empty stomach may be a beneficial strategy for reducing blood sugar levels, as muscle contractions during fasting activate the GLUT-4 protein, which facilitates glucose uptake without the need for insulin. Furthermore, by reducing glucose availability after fasting periods, the practice of physical activity encourages the use of fat as an energy substrate, which may contribute to improvements in lipid metabolism and general health.

can reduce inflammation

Here it is worth remembering that adipose tissue, or fat, is the originator of inflammation, so it is essential to mobilize it.

Low-grade inflammatory processes cause many metabolic diseases; Obesity itself causes it. Furthermore, this inflammation can reach the brain, causing a state of neuroinflammation that increases perceived fatigue and reduces levels of dopamine, the hormone that motivates us to work.

It is known that moderate exercise helps reduce systemic inflammation, but doing it right before or immediately after eating also helps control postprandial inflammation, which occurs in response to food intake.

Who can do this?

Considering all the above, when is it beneficial to do physical activity on an empty stomach? At the moment, it does not provide additional benefit in individuals who lead active lives, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy diet. However, it can sometimes be useful for people who begin to experience metabolic imbalances.

People with underlying health problems should do this exercise only under medical supervision, and it is not recommended for individuals suffering from diabetes, hypoglycemia, or high blood pressure.

In short, this tool cannot be ruled out, but the foundation of health remains a healthy and varied diet and staying active.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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