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Fueling Physical Activity: Recreational & Weight Loss

Fueling Physical Activity: Recreational Exercise & Weight LossNutrition for sport and athletic performance is a huge topic of interest for our clients and rightly so! It’s important to have the right fuel for your body to help get the most out of whatever physical activity you’re choosing to do. Nutritional requirements for fueling are different based on your abilities and intensity.
Photo: MilitaryHealth flickr cc

This post will focus on fueling exercise for weight loss and for recreational activities: not competing in major events but training frequently, for general health purposes or with a specific goal in mind.

Food is Fuel

It’s important to fuel your body well before exercise so that you have enough energy to carry you through your activities and put in a high level of effort. If you’re exercising at moderate intensity for less than 2 hours, you won’t need to fuel during your workout, but you’ll want a snack or meal soon after. It’s important to fuel your body after you’ve exercised so you can recover properly and have enough energy to complete your next workout at full intensity.


Make sure your pre-workout meal or snack includes a source of carbohydrates from grains, dairy or fruit. Carbohydrates are important for providing your muscles with energy during your workout and will help avoid feeling sluggish halfway through. This is because the first place your body gets energy from when you’re working hard (after using available energy) is it’s carbohydrate stores!

If you are eating close to your workout (1 hour or less), choose something small without a high fibre content. For example:

  • ½ cup yogurt with 1-2 tbsp dried fruit
  • ½ banana with 1 tbsp peanut butter
  • ½ cup whole grain cereal + ½ cup milk
  • Whole grain crackers + 1 oz. cheese or ¼ avocado

If you are eating farther away from your workout, choose a larger snack or a meal that will keep you full through the workout. Your body has more time to digest and process tougher nutrients like fibre, so these might be appropriate here. For example:

  • 1 apple + cottage cheese + whole wheat toast
  • ½ cup oatmeal + berries + ½ cup yogurt
  • Smoothie with berries, milk or yogurt, and nut butter
  • Whole wheat wrap with 2-3 oz lean protein, and a piece of fruit
  • It’s also a good idea to sip fluids over the day and leading up to your workout, rather than drinking a large volume of fluid right before you get moving.


Post workout, carbohydrates help re-fuel your muscles and your body as quickly as possible. It’s important to have a protein source with your next meal or snack, and have that meal or snack within 1 – 2 hours of physical activity. More specific timing and amounts of nutrients are most important for elite athletes and people who exercise more than once per day, or within short times of each other (late evening followed by early morning). Protein sources could be animal protein, eggs, dairy products, beans, or a protein powder.

Your post-workout fuel could be a snack or a meal. Some fat in your post-workout fuel is good too, as long as the necessary carbohydrates and protein are also there. For example:

  • ½ cup cottage cheese + 1 medium banana
  • Smoothie with fruit and milk or 1 scoop Whey protein powder (or vegetarian protein power)
  • ½ cup rice + ½ chicken breast + 2 cups mixed vegetables
  • ½ sweet potato + 2 eggs + roasted broccoli and cauliflower
  • ½ cup oatmeal + ½ cup yogurt + 1 cup mixed berries
  • Whole wheat toast with 1 tbsp peanut butter and 1 banana

Exercising with Weight Loss in Mind

If your goal is weight loss (and even if it’s not), it’s important to keep in mind the reality of how many calories you are probably burning during exercise. People tend to overestimate the calories they burn during exercise (calories burned on those machines aren’t accurate!) and overcompensate for exercise in terms of the calories they consume afterwards, or over the rest of the day3. Some tips for exercising with weight loss in mind:

  • Listen to your hunger signals, and make sure your body is also well hydrated so that your body doesn’t signal hunger when you’re actually thirsty.
  • Exercise around your meals. Try to plan exercise so that it happens between regular meal and snack times.  This way, you’re not adding in extra meals or snacks to make sure you’re well fueled for your workout. You are taking in your regular amount of calories and creating to a calorie deficit with exercise, without undoing your hard work with an unnecessary snack in your day. For example:
    • Exercise after work, between your afternoon snack and dinner
    • Work out after breakfast and before your morning snack
    • If you’re an early morning person, try something small before your workout (maybe even part of your regular breakfast), and eat the rest of breakfast after your workout

posted by Lauren Knipping, MSc RD

1Sports Dietitians Australia. Eating & Drinking Before Exercise. Copyright Sports Dietitians Australia. Retrieved from
2Sports Dietitians Australia. Recovery Nutrition. Copyright Sports Dietitians Australia. Retrieved from
3Schneider KL, Spring B & Pagoto SL. Exercise and energy intake in overweight, sedentary individuals. Eating Behaviours (2009). 10; 29 – 35.

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