Want the Full Benefits of Exercise? Don’t Take Antioxidant Vitamins

Antioxidants and Exercise

A recent study published in The Journal of Physiology finds that taking antioxidant vitamins can lessen the strength gains and overall benefits of exercise and weight training.

Browsing through my local health food store’s vitamin section and cruising the online reviews on Amazon, it’s pretty clear that people are into their antioxidants. The antioxidant family can include vitamins C and E, selenium, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Any combination of these vitamins and additional ingredients can be mixed together to make antioxidant supplements, something that millions of Americans ingest every day.

But if you’re taking antioxidants vitamin supplements and hitting the gym regularly, you might want skip wrestling with that childproof cap. In the recent study published in The Journal of Physiology, the researchers asked 32 men and women who were fit and currently weight training to take 1,000 mg of vitamin C and 235 mg of vitamin E supplements (that’s kind of a lot) or a placebo every day for 10 weeks. During that time, the volunteers did heavy lifting workouts 4 times a week. After various samples and tests were performed during and after the experiment, there were some small but noticeable differences between the strength of the placebo group and that of the vitamin group.

According to the New York Times’s report on the study: “Volunteers taking the vitamins had reduced levels of substances known to initiate protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is necessary to repair and strengthen muscles after weight training. So the volunteers taking the vitamins were getting less overall response from their muscles, even though they were following the same exercise program.”

Additionally, there are doubts about whether the touted effects of antioxidant supplements are realistic. Generally, the idea behind antioxidants is that they neutralize free radicals. What exactly are free radicals? The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) explains that free radicals are “highly unstable molecules that are naturally formed when you exercise and when your body converts food into energy.” Those free radical molecules can cause cell damage which is linked to cancer and other terrible diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

So, taking antioxidant supplements seems like a no-brainer. But the NCCAM also says: “Rigorous scientific studies involving more than 100,000 people combined have tested whether antioxidant supplements can help prevent chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and cataracts. In most instances, antioxidants did not reduce the risks of developing these diseases.”

Instead, the NCCAM encourages us eat fruit and veggies, which are naturally loaded with antioxidants, and live a healthy lifestyle for protection against free radicals and diseases. And they’re not alone. I showed the study to Doug Hutcheon, M.D., who is currently Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine, and asked for his doctorly opinion. “It’s difficult to extrapolate the ‘real world’ significance of this finding,” says Dr. Hutcheon. “Regardless of the results of this study, there’s no compelling reason everyday athletes or endurance trainers should take super high doses of these – or any – vitamins, provided they eat a healthy diet.”

While researching this article, I found myself feeling smug. “I don’t take ANY supplements,” I thought to myself. “Look how smart and savvy I am to avoid all the hype.” But then I had to hang my fancy pants out to dry because it immediately occurred to me that large amounts of vitamin C can be found in other places besides bottles of antioxidant vitamins. Popular cold and flu prevention supplements like Emergen-C and Airborne claim that large amounts of antioxidant vitamins boost your immune system. In fact, both of those products contain 1,000 mg of vitamin C per serving, the exact same amount that was given to the volunteers in the weightlifting study. At this point I feel I should come clean and admit that I have a bit of an Emergen-C addiction and down a cup of it at lest twice a week.

And the bottom line is that it’s totally fine. It’s fine, but it’s probably not doing much besides emptying my pocketbook and making my muscles slightly wimpier. And if I weren’t killing it in the gym 6 days a week, and if I were independently wealthy, then I might drink Emergen-C every day. I mean, who cares! But neither of those things are true.

So, in the future, I think I’ll save my big doses of vitamin C for when I feel a cold coming on and save a few bucks. And I’ll skip any other supplements altogether. As hard as working out is, I definitely want the full benefits of exercise. I want every single drop of my sweat to count. Don’t you?

Find Sarah at thisfitmom.com

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Image: Sarah Olive Bergeson