You know about the benefits of exercise, how it can make you healthier, feel better, look better and even live longer — that’s why you exercise, right? But did you know that every time you exercise, you force your body to manufacture free radicals — substances implicated in heart disease, cancer and even the aging process itself? Sounds like a contradiction in terms doesn’t it? Before you start thinking that exercise is bad for you, which it isn’t (unless you have certain medical problems — always consult your physician before starting an exercise program), realize that along with the many benefits of exercise are some potentially negative effects — more specifically, an increase in the formation of detrimental free radicals.
Where free radicals come from?
It’s in the air. Quite simply the problem stems from Oxygen — the stuff we can’t live without. Of the oxygen we breathe in, a very small portion (a few per cent or less) is used to form small, but potentially damaging free radicals. Some of these highly reactive free radicals are actually needed by the body to form essential substances, such as prostaglandins, but the rest of the free radicals can cause havoc throughout the body if they aren’t neutralized. Since the amount of free radicals formed in the body is in direct proportion to the amount of oxygen we ingest, exercise increases the synthesis of these damaging molecules.
One example of free radical damage is the oxidation of cholesterol in low density lipoproteins. When the cholesterol becomes oxidized by free radicals, it has much better chances of sticking to the arterial walls, thereby increasing the risk for heart disease.
What to do:
Use antioxidants. What are antioxidants? The solution to the problem created by free radicals is clear, and simple. Ingest more antioxidants such as vitamins C, E and Beta-carotene. The rationale is simple — since free radicals are formed due to oxygen, they exert their detrimental effect by oxidising essential components of the cell, such as the cell membrane, receptors, enzymes and even DNA — the genetic material of the cell. The only way to stop this damaging process of oxidation is to ensure that you have plenty of antioxidants in your body. Vitamin C is shown to inhibit the growth of T-lymphocytes (HIV infected immune cells). In relation to cancer, vitamin C inhibits the growth of certain tumours, prolonging the life of animals with cancer and decreasing the radiation damage resulting from chemotherapy. All this points to increased longevity.
The take home lesson
Make sure you’re ingesting at least 500 mg of vitamin C, 100 iu of vitamin E, and at least 10,000 IU of Beta-carotene — amounts proven to be optimal. You can easily acquire these levels of vitamin C and Beta-carotene by eating at least 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables each day or take a chewable vitamin C tablet. And, don’t forget to eat one medium size carrot a day. For example, one carrot contains approximately 20,000 iu of Beta-carotene, while one orange contains about 70 mg of vitamin C.
Vitamin E intake however, is a different story. In fact, in order to obtain what many feel is an optimal level requires taking a supplement of vitamin E. Of course, this depends on whether you are presently taking these supplements. If you are, check them to see, how much vitamin E they contain. If you’re getting at least 100 iu each day, then you do not need to take a separate vitamin E supplement. If not, you should switch your multiple vitamin to one that contains more vitamin E, or just take a separate vitamin E supplement. You don’t need huge amounts — 100 or 200 IU capsules will do just fine. And remember, since vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin, you will absorb more of it if you ingest it with meals. Exercise, don’t oxidise.