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The Bad Science of Exercise Recovery

During my freshman year of college, I started going to the gym — and going hard. Three times a week, I would head to the weight room in the rec center’s basement to squat, deadlift, and bench press. It was satisfying to watch the weights slowly increase. I was building muscle, and it felt great to make progress.

But the exercise came with soreness and sometimes pain. It was rewarding but often unpleasant, and I began to experiment with what food to eat and which supplements to take to speed up my recovery. I bought whey protein powder to take before going to the gym and casein protein powder to take before bed. I took pre-workout supplements and purchased protein bars to make sure I got the right ratio of carbohydrates and protein within an hour of exercising. My meals were rigidly planned.

Eventually, I was going to the gym every day, occasionally multiple times. Managing my routine became an expensive, stressful, time-intensive drag on my day. The more I exercised, the more unsustainable financially and physically it became. I enjoyed it less and less. It took years for me to deprogram myself.

So reading Good to Go, a new book by FiveThirtyEight lead science writer Christie Aschwanden, was a revelation: Much of what I thought I knew about exercise and recovery wasn’t just wrong, it was made up. Over the course of her book, Aschwanden demonstrates that basically everything we’ve heard from the exercise recovery industry — which has an estimated worth in the billions — has no scientific validity. Good to Go is a dispiriting look at the way exercise recovery has transformed from the basic act of resting into the scientifically dubious economy of supplements and products — from ice baths to Tom Brady-branded infrared pajamas (which promise on the website to return infrared energy to the wearer’s body, boost localized blood flow, and increase the amount of oxygen reaching the wearer’s muscles).

This is an industry where revenue trumps science every time. For anyone currently trapped in their own recovery regimen, Good to Go is a wake-up call.

Aschwanden’s most pressing revelation is about just how scientifically unsound much of the recovery industry is. At vendors like GNC and the Vitamin Shoppe, bottles come emblazoned with dramatic and jargon-filled claims to entice buyers. Often, it’s difficult to describe what exactly the product is supposed to do. Aschwanden describes seeing one GNC supplement that claimed to “work synergistically with the body’s own mechanisms of renewal” and “increase joint comfort and healthy circulation.” These claims come with a warning reminding customers that they’re completely unsubstantiated by an outside source.

Instead of buying into the exercise recovery industry, Aschwanden emphasizes getting a good night’s sleep.

You don’t have to look far to find these products. Currently, the top-selling recovery product on GNC’s website is Jym’s Post Jym Active. Its label promises that “After you’ve put in your last rep, your body is desperate for the ingredients that that will help it refuel, recover and, in the process, grow bigger and stronger.” The supplement is apparently “research-backed” in the description, but it doesn’t elaborate. While the page on Jym’s website breaks down the ingredients and what they’re supposed to do, it’s vague. The label does, however, feature the Instagram handle and a photo of Jim Stoppani, the product’s inspiration. His body, apparently, is proof enough.

Then, there’s the reigning champion of recovery marketing: Gatorade. For decades, Gatorade has built a brand on the promise that its combination of electrolytes and sugar is an important part of rehydrating and recovering after a workout. A recent commercial starring Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, Serena Williams, and others opens with this salvo: “You sport. We science.”

This claim is technically true, but as Aschwanden illustrates, there’s nothing particularly special about Gatorade. According to research cited by Aschwanden, drinking regular water and eating regular food will do all of the things Gatorade does. And Good to Go lays out how sports drink manufacturers have, for a long time, biased their studies in favor of their preferred outcomes. They’ll run trials with a small number of participants or force extreme circumstances on their subjects. She refers to the findings of a team of researchers from the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, where researchers found that “if you apply evidence-based methods, 40 years of sports drinks research does not seemingly add up to much.”

Aschwanden also demonstrates that “nutrient timing,” a popular theory that exercisers must eat a certain ratio of carbohydrates and protein within 45 minutes or so of the end of their workout, is a myth. According to Brad Schoenfeld, the director of the Human Performance Lab at CUNY Lehman College, the so-called “anabolic window” that undergirded the theory of nutrient timing is open for at least several hours. That wider window means that the overpriced supplements meant to be ingested immediately after a workout may be no more effective than eating a proper meal hours later.

Even if the science supported the recovery industry, it’s worth considering the cost of recovery, both monetary and psychological. Shakes, supplements, and pills can be prohibitively expensive: A 30-serving container of Jym’s Post Jim Active costs $39.99. Even low- and no-cost recovery methods such as stretching, foam rolling routines, and ice baths can take can be an unnecessary burden. Not only does Aschwanden suggest that stretching and foam rolling doesn’t actually appear to reduce soreness or instances of injury — and that ice baths might actually slow down muscle repair — but all these activities are also time-intensive.

“Instead of winding down,” Aschwanden summarizes, “you’re essentially extending the workday.”

If there is a takeaway at the heart of Aschwanden’s book, it’s that for most of us, exercise is already intimidating and confusing enough. Instead of buying into the exercise recovery industry, Aschwanden emphasizes getting a good night’s sleep or, in lieu of that, napping. Resting and relaxing are key, as is eating well.

This lesson was difficult for me to learn. During and after college, I struggled to balance my exercise regimen, eventually taking a prolonged break. A few years later, when I made my way back into an exercise routine, I took it easy on myself: I avoided fitness forums and stopped worrying about optimizing my workouts. I made sure my routine was enjoyable and sustainable, and I didn’t use supplements. I make sure to rest for as long as I exercised, and I relax between workouts. I listen to my body, drink water when I’m thirsty, and eat balanced meals. And I certainly don’t buy anything from Tom Brady.

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