Person lifting weight

A secret of maxing out your workout is to eat right—and at the right time.

But should your diet be influenced by the form of exercise you do, be it cardio, strength, yoga, Pilates or Barre?

“It’s not so much the type of activity but the intensity,” says Hannah Boyl, MS, RD, LD, sports dietitian at Memorial Hermann | Rockets Sports Medicine Institute. “That means not only the length of the workout and the resistance setting on your equipment but also how hard you perceive the workout to be.”

“Your perception should be your reality,” she says.

Some people track their heart rate via monitors or work with a trainer to reach certain goals. But you may find it helpful to score your workout’s intensity from 1-10 based on how difficult you find it. After all, what you rate 8-9 out of 10 may be someone else’s 4 out of 10.

“You need to tune into your body, because one person’s leisurely walk or easy Pilates session might be a struggle for someone else,” Boyl says. “It’s how you perceive it, based on your fitness level.”

Another way to judge a workout’s intensity is the talk test. If you can speak easily while exercising, that’s low intensity. If you’re too breathless to communicate during your session, that’s high intensity.

High Intensity

How It Feels: You’re focused and challenged during a workout and wiped out afterward. The perception score: 7-9 on a scale of 1-10. The talk test: You’re too out of breath to chat or sing.

What You're Doing: Hard, high-speed, high-resistance and lengthy cardio; high weight, low rep or low weight, high rep strength training; hot yoga, or for some, Barre or Pilates classes. “You may be using a heavier weight or working until you can’t lift any more with proper form.” Not taking as much rest between sets also hikes the difficulty, Boyl says. “Heat alone makes hot yoga intense.”

What You Should Eat: Have a light, carb-based snack or meal a couple of hours beforehand. “You may need more carbohydrates in general that day,” she says. “You should have a snack of carbs and protein within an hour after a hard workout. You also need to hydrate throughout your day and workout.”

Why It Matters: You boost your strength and endurance during your fitness bout if you have carbs, which is the first energy store harnessed and depleted during a hard workout. “If you’re not eating until four hours later, you won’t get the muscle building and performance you’d like from your training,” Boyl says. Even if you’re not lifting weights, “you’re still breaking down your muscles with sprints and other intense activity.” Carbs replenish those energy stores, protein aids muscle repair, while being well-hydrated allows your body to perspire, which cools your body down.

The Reward: You burn calories, gain muscles and perform better in your next workout. “You also may be less sore if you’ve eaten soon after.”

Low Intensity

Hot It Feels: You’re relatively fresh during and afterward, reaping relaxation or energy.  The perception score: 1-4. The talk test: You could chat or break into song easily.

What You're Doing: A leisurely stroll, five miles on a treadmill at low speed and resistance; a restorative yoga or stretch class; or a light rep, light weight strength training session.

What You Should Eat: You can wait until your next meal—as long as you’re eating well-balanced meals and snacks throughout the day. And you still need water!

A healthy meal includes protein, fruit, veggies and starchy carbs (such as whole grains, rice, potatoes or oats), Boyl says. “Meals and snacks should be spaced throughout the day.”

Why It Matters: You need energy, but low-intensity activity doesn’t demand the same amount of energy as high-intensity activity.

The Reward: Your mental and physical health need gentle workouts, not just all-out sweat sessions. And you still can lose weight.

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