Many individuals on a ketogenic diet are looking to improve their health and fitness, and in the long-term, the ketogenic state will certainly help to bolster one’s stamina and increase one’s overall strength. In the short-term, however, newcomers will need to be cautious about over-exercising, as the body needs time to adjust to a new source of energy. High-intensity, high-impact exercises can have a deleterious effect on individuals who are just beginning their keto journey.
Although over-exertion is a potential risk to keto newbies, it does not mean they aren’t allowed to exercise. On the contrary, low-impact exercises, designed appropriately, can help to advance the benefits of keto at a faster rate. Before we go into greater detail about the best exercise plan for keto newcomers, let’s look at what exactly keto does to the body and how it impacts physical activity.
Keto and The Body
The human body primarily runs on glucose and fatty acids, both of which are derived from the diet. Glucose is the energy source derived from carbohydrates (sugars and starches) through a process called “glycolysis”, while fatty acids are the energy source derived from fats through a process called beta-oxidation. On a standard diet, glucose is the first source of fuel to be burned, but on a ketogenic diet, the primary fuel source is shifted towards fatty acids through carbohydrate depletion. The benefits of this shift are myriad, but in order to reap these benefits, the body must first adjust to the new fuel system. The adjustment period takes 2 to 3 weeks, and during this time some individuals may experience the “keto flu”: a state of irritability, sleeplessness, and discomfort that results from the body’s rapid adaptation to a different avenue of energy usage.
The “keto flu” can be caused by a number of different issues. While it is mainly thought to result from the adaptation to ketosis, it can also be caused by, or exacerbated by, both micronutrient and electrolyte deficiencies or the withdrawal from carbohydrates. Micronutrient and electrolyte deficiencies are the most treatable “keto flu” culprits and can be remedied by increasing vegetable intake.
Even without “keto flu” symptoms, individuals going through the keto-adaptation process may experience a lack of energy and may have greater difficulty recovering from exercise. However, exercise may still be a part of one’s health regimen if it is well-planned and appropriately executed.
Keto Workout Benefits
While adapting to keto may make physical activity temporarily challenging, performing while in ketosis is immensely beneficial. Ketosis improves several markers of athletic performance, aids recovery, and increases general physical wellbeing. Exercise, in and of itself, is a major factor in personal health. Sedentary lifestyles are a known contributor to a variety of serious chronic diseases, ranging from adult-onset diabetes to cardiovascular disease.
Exercise helps maintain physical health through several pathways. Exercise increases fat burning, improves body composition, increases VO2 max, and helps keep blood pressure and blood sugar under control. Exercise also helps with mental health as well; regular exercise has been scientifically proven to boost mood due to its ability to increase favorable hormones like serotonin and brain-healthy proteins such as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).
Once the body has adjusted to burning fatty acids as a primary fuel source, the benefits of exercise are greatly amplified. The chief advantage that ketogenic individuals have with exercise is an enhanced ability to lose fat mass. Several studies conducted on keto-adapted endurance athletes have proven that the ketogenic diet enhances the individual ability to burn fat. One study showed that, in the course of a single run, runners on a ketogenic diet burned up to three times as much fat as runners on a standard diet. Another study reported that over a ten-week period, endurance athletes saw an increase in fat loss and improved rates recovery while on a high-fat diet. Yet another study showed that obese individuals who had adapted to ketosis were able to last twice as long during treadmill exercises.
The benefits of ketosis on exercise are not simply limited to fat loss. Ketosis can also improve muscle gain and aid in overall body composition. Studies have shown that men who weight-lift are able to gain more muscle on a ketogenic diet than on a high carb diet.
There are large bodies of evidence that support a beneficial relationship between the ketogenic diet and regular exercise. However, the question still remains over how to exercise effectively before the body is fully adapted to the ketogenic state.
Training Before Ketosis
Exercise is typically classified through varying levels of intensity. High-intensity interval training (or HIIT for short), is, as the name suggests, one of the most intense forms of exercise. HIIT tends to focus on short, rigorous activities rather than long, endurance-based activities (think sprinting rather than jogging). HIIT is thought to be highly efficient at reducing fat mass, promoting cardiovascular health, and even enhancing brain power. For an average person in good health, HIIT is recommended as part of a general exercise routine.
When in ketosis, the ability to perform HIIT is greatly enhanced. Athletes adapted to a ketogenic state have an increased ability to store glycogen, a multi-branched polysaccharide that the body preserves for use in high-intensity exercise. This means they are able to perform HIIT for longer, with greater overall power. However, individuals who have not yet adapted to a ketogenic state may find HIIT difficult. It is recommended that during the 2 to 3 week period prior to ketogenic adaptation, low-intensity exercises should be favored over high-intensity exercises.
Low-intensity exercises are exercises that stimulate the body and promote physical wellness but do not necessarily bring individuals to exhaustion. Some of these exercises include biking, yoga, and milder forms of weight training. Here are some of the many forms of low-intensity exercise that one can choose from while in the pre-ketosis phase.
Cardio is generally a great form of exercise for individuals who are adapting to ketosis. Many forms of cardio are not overly stressful but still provide benefits to the entire body. Cardio is, as the name implies, beneficial for heart health, but certain forms of cardio can also be useful for muscular development as well. It is important to remember that in the pre-ketosis adaptation period, cardio should be performed in a low-intensity manner. Cardio should not raise one’s heart rate above 50% maximum capacity; generally, the threshold for over-exertion is intuitive and the difference between a strenuous run and a pleasant jog can be gauged by instinct.
Although running is the most popular form of cardio, there are many different kinds of light cardio that one can perform. Some examples include swimming, cycling, and going for hikes. Hiking is especially suited to pre-ketogenic individuals since its intensity can be adjusted easily through the choice of location and the overall distance of the hike.
Not all forms of cardio need to be outdoors. At the gym, there are ample cardio machines to choose from, including the treadmill, elliptical trainer, stationary bicycle, and Stairmaster. Indoor rowing machines can also be used for cardio exercise. Performing cardio exercises at the gym can be a helpful way of managing the intensity of the exercise; low settings on cardio machines ensure that individuals will not over-exert themselves.
Pre-Ketosis Lifting and Stretching
Although weightlifting might seem like an inherently intense exercise, it can be perfectly suited to pre-ketogenic individuals when performed appropriately. In the pre-ketogenic state, individuals are advised to engage in weightlifting regimens that use low weights and high amounts of reps. Low weight, high-rep plans can still help build muscle but don’t bring the weightlifter to the point of exhaustion or excessive stress. It is also important for individuals in a pre-ketogenic state to engage in exercises that help prevent injury and keep the body flexible. Yoga and Pilates are a great way to receive a low-intensity workout that provides the added benefit of keeping muscles loose.
Once the adaptation period has neared its conclusion, moderate-to-high intensity exercises may be reintroduced into one’s regular regimen. But before embarking on more intense forms of exercise, it is important to make sure that one’s health is well-supported by lifestyle. Care should be taken not only to remain in a state of ketosis but also to support ketosis with fresh, well-sourced foods. Ketogenic individuals should make sure that their diets include high-quality meats and vegetables and do not neglect any vital nutrients.
Once the individual is in a ketogenic state, the body is primed to respond differently to different kinds of exercise. Provided here are some examples of different forms of exercise that ketogenic individuals can experience benefits from.
Low-Intensity Exercise in Ketosis
Ketogenic individuals are encouraged to continue engaging in low-intensity exercises, such as aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is a classification of low-to-moderate intensity cardio exercise with a duration of over half an hour. Even on a standard diet, the human body tends to burn fat as a primary energy source when engaged in aerobic exercise, so ketogenic individuals should have no difficulty continuing this form of activity. In fact, it is likely that aerobic exercise will become easier as the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel becomes enhanced. Popular forms of aerobic exercise, such as jogging and swimming, are a great way to burn fat and promote cardiovascular health without excessive strain.
High-Intensity Exercise in Ketosis
On the other end of the intensity spectrum from aerobic exercise is anaerobic exercise. Anaerobic exercise is a classification of high-intensity activity that lasts for a shorter duration of time. The main goals of anaerobic exercise are muscle gain and fat loss, although the benefits offered from this form of exercise are myriad. Unlike aerobic exercise, the human body tends to favor glucose as a source of fuel during anaerobic exercise. Although ketogenic individuals adjust to anaerobic exercise over time, they may find that high-intensity anaerobic activity is difficult even after their initial adaptation period is over.
One means of adjusting more quickly to anaerobic exercise is implementing a system known as the targeted ketogenic diet. The targeted ketogenic diet is a structured form of the regular ketogenic diet that allows the few carbs the diet permits to act in the most beneficial manner possible. On a ketogenic diet, a maximum of 50 carbs per day may be consumed before the integrity of ketosis in the body is affected. The targeted ketogenic diet works by structuring the consumption of these carbs so that they are active in the body at the time of greatest need: high-intensity exercise.
For ketogenic individuals looking to improve their anaerobic performance, roughly 20 grams worth of simple carbohydrates should be consumed a half an hour prior to exercise, as well as 20 grams a half an hour after exercise. Consuming carbs within such a short time-frame allows them to be used fully for energy and recovery. The body will not be taken out of ketosis and the glucose-favoring high-intensity workouts will be easier to complete and heal from.
Protective Exercise In Ketosis
The final two forms of exercise after aerobic and anaerobic are flexibility exercises and stability exercises. These forms of exercise may be viewed as “anti-stress” exercises; although they can still be difficult, their central purpose is to heal the body and help prevent injury.
Stretching exercises, such as yoga, help keep muscles loose and flexible. Stability exercises are intended to aid in balance and alignment, which helps provide a solid foundation for all other forms of exercise. As neither type of exercise requires substantial amounts of fuel, both should be easy to perform while on the ketogenic diet.
Although the ketogenic diet at times provides temporary obstacles to physical activity, the long-term benefits are well-established. Better rates of fat loss, better rates of glycogen storage, and improved stability of blood glucose have been consistently reported in individuals who exercise while in a ketogenic state. With proper planning and care, the ketogenic diet can vastly expand the benefits of regular exercise, compared to standard or high-carb diets.
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