Fueling a Healthy, Active Lifestyle: What, When + Why

The Bite into a Healthy Lifestyle theme for National Nutrition Month® 2015 draws attention to lifestyle habits that will keep you happy and healthy for the long-term, and ultimately help decrease your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and many other chronic diseases.

At its core is not only the nutrition piece you might expect – trying to consume fewer calories and choosing healthful foods – but also a focus on fitness to achieve and sustain a healthy weight through daily exercise.

The current guidelines for adults* recommend a weekly minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise, like walking, with intervals of at least 10 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise (e.g., brisk walking, dancing, biking on flat terrain) OR 75 minutes of either vigorous exercise (e.g., jogging, tennis, biking hills or swimming laps) or a combination of both moderate and vigorous activity. [An easy method to meet the weekly goal: aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day, which can be further broken up into two 15-minute intervals per day.]

Waukesha Race07

What does it take to maintain a physically active and healthy lifestyle?

Whether you are beginning a new fitness routine or are an seasoned athlete, it’s important to properly nourish and hydrate your body before, during and after exercise. One must also account for timing of meals and snacks, as well as specific nutrients needed to provide energy, improve performance, promote muscle building, and fuel recovery.

Considering all the variables, what seems like a basic concept of eating right to play hard can seem complicated. So let’s first take a closer look at the nutrients necessary for success.

+ Carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy in the form of glycogen – the primary fuel for muscles during moderate- to high-intensity activity. They also promote production of the hormone insulin that contributes to muscle development, and are important for proper recovery following the workout.

Different types of carbohydrates – simple vs. complex – each play a role at different times for healthy fueling. Complex options, like oats, quinoa, brown rice, vegetables or sweet potatoes, are important to provide satiety and fiber. Simpler options, like pastas and cereals, breads, fresh or dried fruit, or sports foods, are important for rapid digestion and utilization by the muscles.

+ Protein is required for your blood cells deliver oxygen throughout the body, and helps your muscles recover and grow. It also aids in the muscles’ ability to take in and make use of those carbohydrates, helping to replenish depleted glycogen stores following exercise.

+ Healthy Fats, particularly heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, are crucial to provide satiation and to fuel your immune system following high-intensity/endurance workouts. Strenuous physical activity actually sends the body into a natural state of inflammation. In the long-term this helps muscles adapt to your training routine, and promotes increased strength, speed, stamina, etc. In the short-term, however, you become more susceptible to illness and infection, making these anti-inflammatory fats very important.

Adequate intake of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits will also alleviate muscle soreness and support immune health, playing a role in the reduction of damaging free radicals naturally created during exercise. Why am I listing this under Healthy Fats? You may not realize it, but fat is essential for the body to absorb most of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. So pair your veg and fruit with a little healthy fat to maximize your recovery.

+ Fluids are also critical for improved performance and relaying fuel to muscles, as well as for preventing dehydration and any possible heat-related issues. Water should be your go-to, but if you’re active for more than 75 to 90 minutes in a hot and humid climate or sweat a lot, a sports drink provides carbohydrates, sodium and other electrolytes, in addition to the fluid you need.

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Now that we have a better understanding of the roles these nutrients play, let’s move on to when each should be the focus of your fueling routine plus a few healthy examples of what to choose.


For consistent, optimum performance your body requires a regular supply of energy for the muscles every day. To meet your needs, include a balanced, high-fiber breakfast; a mixture of quality complex and natural-simple carbohydrates for fuel throughout the day; plus lean proteins and healthy fats at each meal. Don’t forget the water: about 72 fl oz (9 cups) for women, and 104 fl oz (13 cups) for men each day.


Two to four hours prior to a workout, look for foods high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat and fiber to top off carbohydrate stores of glycogen. Ensure adequate hydration by drinking about 16 fl oz of water 2 hours before exercise.

+ Activities that will be less than 1 hour require only a small snack, like two rice cakes topped with tahini or almond butter + honey and 1/2 sliced banana; one string cheese and six whole-grain crackers; medium latte with skim milk; low-fat plain yogurt with 1/2 apple sliced; 1 cup plain, unsalted popcorn.

+ Those intended to be upwards of 1.5 to 2 hours require something more substantial. For example: 1/2 cup quinoa or oatmeal made with skim or unsweetened non-dairy milk with 2 T dried fruit or a handful of fresh berries; half sandwich on whole-wheat bread with 2 to 3 slices of chicken, turkey or lean beef; 1/2 cup low-fat plain yogurt with fresh berries and 1/4 cup low-sugar granola; 1/2 whole wheat pita with 2 T hummus.

Thirty to 60 minutes prior to a workout, focus on highly-digestible carbohydrate foods and hydration.

Endurance athletes may wish to choose a piece of fruit or water to meet their needs, but could also go with a sports drink or sports food (e.g., gels, beans, gummy chews) depending on the heat and humidity conditions. If you opt for any of the sports foods, keep in mind that they are highly concentrated sources of nutrition – you may want to follow with water to avoid upsetting your stomach.

Regular intensity/shorter duration sessions are better suited to simply water here. However, if you plan to exercise shortly after waking up and haven’t eaten anything since the evening prior, go for something small and light but balanced, like a couple dates and a tablespoon of nuts or seeds, to accompany your water.


During workouts lasting more than 60 minutes, easily digested “simple” carbohydrates quickly increase blood sugar levels and provide glycogen to re-up your energy levels and help avoid “hitting the wall.” They also curb hunger, and help your body prepare for recovery following completion of the workout.

+ Aim to include a high-carbohydrate snack for every 60 minutes of activity completed. Some examples include: a small piece of fresh fruit or handful of raisins; 1 piece of bread with jam or honey sandwiched inside; sports foods gels or gummies; or intermittent bites of a sports/energy bar with 25 to 40 g carbohydrate, between 100 to 200 calories, and no more than 5 g fat and 10 g protein.

+ Hydration needs will vary from person to person based on size and intensity of exercise, but a sound starting point is to consume 8 to 10 fl oz water every 15 minutes during activity. If duration is longer than 90 minutes, or it’s particularly hot and humid and you’re sweating quite a bit, a sports drink may be a better choice to provide extra carbohydrates, as well as electrolytes.


Within 30 to 60 minutes of exercise – the period known as the “recovery window” – your muscles are able to utilize nutrients at maximum efficiency. Carbohydrates, fluid, electrolytes, protein are important for muscle recovery and rebuilding, and replenishing depleted energy stores.

Including foods rich in omega-3 fats, like nuts and seeds or nut and seed butters, avocado, salmon and sardines, or olive oil, in your post-workout meal will help your body quickly and efficiently move out of that inflammatory state we talked about earlier, and protect your over-worked muscles and body from infection and injury.

+ If the workout was less than 1 hour, your best bet is a bottle of water and to refuel at your next scheduled meal. If it was more substantial, choose a snack like two hard-boiled egg whites with hummus; one rice cake + 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese + a couple tomato slices; or 1/2 cup low-fat yogurt + 1/2 banana sliced + 1/4 cup nuts or seeds; or a sports/energy bar with 200 to 250 calories and a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.

+ If the workout wraps up shortly before lunch or supper, a few more substantial recovery meal ideas would be a whole wheat pita sandwich with 3 to 4 turkey slices and 1/2 cup veggies + low-fat milk; 1/2 cup quinoa with black beans, 2 T shredded cheese, 2 T salsa + 1/4 avocado; or 4 oz pan-seared salmon, 1/2 cup veg like broccoli, bell peppers, carrots and onions, with 1/2 cup brown rice and a dash of soy sauce or whole wheat tortilla and hot sauce.

+ If you typically don’t have an appetite post-workout, choose liquid foods that meet your recovery goals, like a smoothie made with 1/2 cup low-fat plain yogurt and 1/2 cup frozen berries or fresh pineapple + a handful of spinach; 8 fl oz low-fat chocolate milk; or a sports drink + 1/2 high-protein sports/energy bar.

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Fueling and hydrating smartly before, during and after activity, in addition to proper nutrition on a daily basis, is what it takes to maintain an active lifestyle. But bear in mind that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. The strategies that work for your best friend, sister or trainer may not work for you.

Furthermore, the recommendations above are just recommendations. My advice is to experiment, trying a few things with different workouts to see what ultimately works best for you and your body.

One final note: remember that adequate rest, stretching, strength conditioning and other healthy life choices are also important pieces of the puzzle.

While there is a lot of information to digest, I hope this post is helpful and encourages you to become more active on a regular basis for best health. If you have additional thoughts, please share in the comments below! I love to hear from you. And stay tuned for a bonus National Nutrition Month® post to follow in the coming weeks, with a special guest interview!

Cheers to your health and wellness, Heather

Tell me… What are some tricks or tips that work for your fitness nutrition routine? Any favorite snacks or meals?

*To see recommendations for adolescents and children, visit choosemyplate.gov.

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p.s. I love hearing from you! Check back if you ask a question, because I’ll answer it here.

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Be Active Be Well Eat Well


    • Heather Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN says:

      It’ll depend on your schedule, but let’s go with the typical start time around 1600/1700. Prior to leaving home around 1500 I would recommend a PFC (protein + healthy fat + carbohydrate) snack. For example: 1/2 cup low-fat plain yogurt + 1/4 cup thawed frozen berries + 2 Tbsp nuts or seeds; 2 Tbsp hummus with 1 cup cut up veg; or 1 slice toasted whole grain bread with 1 Tbsp nut butter or a thin slice of cheese melted on top.

      About 3 to 3.5 hours later — the time you’d normally eat supper, now mid-way through your shift — choose something slightly more substantial; again including the PFC combination. Leftovers are great reheated here, say 1 cup roasted veggies with 1/2 cup brown rice or quinoa + a 4 oz portion of chicken breast, lean beef or chickpeas.

      Since you wrap up late, maybe just a small nibble before leaving work to give your tired muscles something to help them recover, like 2 thick cross sections of an apple (or a 1/2 banana) you smeared 1 Tbsp nut butter + a sprinkle of cinnamon between.

      Water all the while prior to going in, as well as during work. Definitely recommend bringing a re-fillable bottle with you.

      Hope that helps!

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