• Nutrition & health

Why is it important for you to combine exercise with protein?

By Courtney Gerlach

Courtney is a Registered Dietitian at Fonterra. She holds a BSc. Food Science & Nutrition, and a MHSc in Nutrition & Dietetics

  • Nutrition & health

Protein is most well-known for its ability to build and maintain strong muscles.

But without regular resistance-based exercise, you may find it hard to build or maintain lean muscle mass.

In a similar way, the benefits of exercise cannot be optimised without an adequate intake of protein. Read on to find out why combining exercise with protein is so important, and the best way to do it.

What happens to my muscles during resistance training?

In order to appreciate what protein can do, it’s important to understand what happens to your body following a particularly intense, resistance-based work out, such as lifting heavy weights. Resistance-based exercise is designed to stress muscles, which can cause a low level of damage to muscle tissue. While it may sound scary, when combined with an adequate intake of protein, this is actually a great way to build and maintain lean muscle mass. This is because protein provides building blocks (called amino acids) which help to repair and rebuild your muscle, stronger than it was before. And when consumed as part of a healthy diet, this can help to maintain optimal body composition. So, while it’s pretty clear that exercise and protein go hand in hand, here are a few tips to getting the most benefit.

Three tips to help you combine protein with exercise more effectively
1. Know how much protein you need daily

A lot of us know that protein is important, but we aren’t always sure about how much protein we need. Your muscles are essentially your protein stores – so when you don’t get enough protein, relative to the amount of physical activity you do, your body can begin to break down more muscle protein than it creates, leading to muscle loss – which is not what we want to be doing. In fact, consuming at least 20g of high quality protein after weight bearing exercise can help to minimise protein breakdown, and help stimulate muscle growth.

While daily protein requirements can depend on a number of factors, including your age, gender and weight, the amount and intensity of physical activity you do across the day also helps to determine how much protein you need. For example, someone who spends most of their day at a desk will have a lower protein requirement than someone who has chosen a job that involves significantly more physical activity, such as building. The amount of resistance based training you do will also have an impact on how much protein you need for optimal health. 

2. Pick your timing

While getting the right amount of protein is important, it is just as essential to consider how often you’re consuming protein, and when you’re consuming it in relation to exercise. When we consume high protein foods following an intense workout, we can reduce the amount of protein we need to break down from our muscles, and the amount of lean muscle mass we can build increases. Getting enough protein at each meal throughout the day can be beneficial. It has been shown that athletes who were given adequate protein over four meals across the day experienced greater muscle growth, when compared to those who had it less frequently or in smaller amounts at each meal. Getting enough protein at each meal throughout the day has also been shown to help with muscle maintenance in non-athletes – especially among older populations.

3. Choose convenient and high quality proteins

Protein provides amino acids to the body, which act as building blocks, helping to repair and rebuild body tissue such as muscle. While there are around 20 amino acids, nine of these are considered indispensable (or essential) – meaning that we must get them from our diet. Among them is the amino acid called leucine, which plays a big role in determining muscle mass, as it plays a particularly important role in stimulating the production of muscle and preventing muscle from breaking down. Foods that contain all nine indispensable amino acids in adequate amounts the body needs are considered high quality and include animal foods, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, as well as soy. Dairy also happens to be a particularly good source of leucine.

While it might not always be practical to pop a steak on the grill immediately after a workout, with a bit of preparation and know-how, it’s easy to get enough high-quality protein throughout the day. You could prepare some bircher muesli soaked in milk, or hard-boil a few eggs the night before a morning workout, but you may find it much easier to simply add protein-rich toppings (such as cottage cheese) to wholegrain toast, top your porridge with Anchor Protein+ Plain yoghurt, or add some Anchor Protein+ milk into your morning smoothie.