OK to exercise on an empty stomach?
March 31, 2016 10:19 PM   Subscribe

I have never been able to eat in the mornings. 5 days a week I do an hour of some form of exercise on an empty stomach and do not eat until a few hours afterwards. Is this unhealthy? Should I be forcing myself to eat before and/or after working out, and if so, what should I eat?

I am overweight and love to eat, but I don't like eating in the mornings. I usually manage a cup of coffee at around 11am which takes me an hour to drink.

To be honest the idea of forcing down some food first thing in the morning and then exercising just grosses me out. Do I have to do this? Am I harming my post-workout recovery by not eating at all? Will this impede my strength gains? I googled it and got a lot of conflicting information (carbs BEFORE workout! No, protein BEFORE workout! No, protein AFTER workout! No, fasting exercise is the best kind of exercise!). So should I be forcing myself to eat before and after exercise, and if so, what should I be eating?

Recently a bunch of life circumstances changed, which has allowed me to invest a little more time and money into exercise. For the past 2 months I have been doing about an hour of some kind of exercise 5-6 mornings a week, first thing after waking up. 3 days a week I do one hour of bodyweight exercises with the help of a trainer. 2 or sometimes 3 days a week I go to the park for an hour-long walk. (I know it doesn't sound like much, but it's the most exercise I've ever done in my life on a regular basis.)

I'm not exercising to lose weight, and I'm not on a diet. I have no idea how much my weight has changed, although I've recently said goodbye to a fat roll around my mid section that's been there since the dawn of time. I know I've gotten a little stronger, and I want to build on that. We've had a lot of very distressing health issues in the family of late and it's really motivated me to get my ass into gear with regards to exercise. (Additional info: I'm female, 30s, in South Asia, exercising in the heat most of the time, I sweat buckets and drink a lot of water before, after, and during exercise.)
posted by Ziggy500 to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
There is actually some research which indicated that regular fasted exercise helps reduce insulin resistance which is a good thing. I think the most common reason not to eat before you exercise is that it makes some people feel gross to exercise with a full stomach. But unless you get tired very quickly I don't think it's a huge deal one way or another. I used to regularly cycle to work for 30 min on an empty stomach because I didn't like riding with a full gut. For an hour workout, yeah, maybe have a light meal.
posted by GuyZero at 10:26 PM on March 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm usually someone who eats breakfast pretty soon after rising but when I trained with a personal trainer I did so on an empty stomach (well, I had water). I was fine and the trainer thought it was appropriate. I had no desire to throw up and I surely would have done if I'd eaten.

I was doing an intense half hour workout with ten minute walk each way to get there.
posted by kitten magic at 10:27 PM on March 31, 2016

I find that I will have a better morning workout if I am not doing it on an empty stomach. Sometimes (like today) that means that I'll only have a glass of milk before going to the gym, but usually it is something slightly more substantial like a piece of toast, granola bar or some yoghurt. I'm still nowhere near full when I get to the gym but my stomach isn't totally empty either. I think the reasoning is that overnight your body is kind of fasting so if you don't eat anything in the morning you're running on fumes. It may be good if your goal is weight loss but isn't optimal if you are building strength.

Post-workout I will have breakfast, but it depends on how much time I have and what is at home. Today I ate an energy bar on the drive home from the gym, and that was my breakfast because I was running late. When I have more time I'll actually have some kind of real breakfast like cereal or egg and toast. Apparently getting protein and carbs post-workout aids in recovery, but I don't know how much that really matters for most people though because we are probably already getting more protein and carbs than we need.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:48 PM on March 31, 2016

Here's a NY Times article from 2010 on the research GuyZero refers to: The Benefits of Exercising Before Breakfast.

Relatedly: Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day, essential to health and well-being and all that? Apparently not.
posted by mumkin at 11:08 PM on March 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think this is one of those "whatever works best for you" situations. It's sort of like the question of whether it's better to workout in the morning or at night. What's best is what will help you actually do it.

You may start to find you're running out of energy, in which case, maybe you can test the waters with a small amount of food. I was always a fan of some sort of complex carb that would give me a slow energy burn, like just a little bit of oatmeal, not a lot. But if you don't have that problem, do what works for you!
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:31 PM on March 31, 2016 [10 favorites]

I have no idea but I feel better when I wait until after a workout to drink coffee.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 11:43 PM on March 31, 2016

I've been working out like this for about a year now, only downside I have noticed is that I consistently get hungry in the afternoon.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:37 AM on April 1, 2016

The best kind of exercise to do, is the kind you'll actually do. If you prefer working out in the morning on an empty stomach, then it's fine.

I prefer exercising on an empty stomach - especially cardio. It makes me feel gross to feel stuff in my belly before going for a run or jumping around. I do however, always have some coffee before. It wakes me up, helps my digestive system get going, and just seems to be party of my morning routine. Total personal preference.

I also lost over 50lbs doing it this way, so it can't be all that bad for you. Maybe there are preferred protein-this, carbohydrate-that methods about eating pre/post workout. Just do what's going to make YOU feel better working out - that's the best method of them all.
posted by raztaj at 4:16 AM on April 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

No research to back it up, just an impression, but I would think that having food in your stomach would tend to "distract" your system because it has to send blood to work at digesting food and keep increased blood flow to muscles at the same time.
posted by megatherium at 5:03 AM on April 1, 2016

I have either run, biked, jogged, shuffled and now swim every morning for 45 years before eating anything. Enough said.
posted by rmhsinc at 5:10 AM on April 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I often go on morning runs of up to 90 minutes without eating anything before - it works fine for me. However I do think it's a good idea to eat something afterwards, to replenish your glycogen stores and start repairing your muscles. If you don't like eating in the morning, maybe just a small Greek yogurt? Even 3/4 cup of plain Greek yogurt has about 18g of protein, and isn't too filling. I usually add a banana too.
posted by barnoley at 5:18 AM on April 1, 2016

I'm sitting at my desk right now eating my breakfast. I've been up for 3.5 hours. I had a cup of coffee right after I got up. I walked for about 45 minutes. I drove 27 miles to get to work. I've been here an hour and I'm just now slightly hungry. It works for me, I've been on this schedule forever. Whatever works for you, keep doing it.

I have found that eating a high protein breakfast- or whatever you want to call the first meal you eat- helps me not get hungry.
posted by mareli at 5:35 AM on April 1, 2016

Sounds like not eating first works fine for you, so I wouldn't worry.

The main downsides of exercising on an empty stomach:
- your blood sugar will be lower after an eight to twelve hour fast, so you may tire faster or feel weaker. But you would notice that.
- by delaying breakfast you get so ravenous that you can't wait for a proper meal but eat the first (usually high-card junky) thing that you can get your hands on. But you say you don't have that problem.

Many major religions include fasting in their rituals, and people deal with it. Drink water but don't worry about anything else.
posted by mr vino at 5:51 AM on April 1, 2016

My anecdata is that I can go faster/longer with some food in my system. If you're training with specific goals, you might find that eating before/soon after exercise helps. If you're just exercising for the sake of exercising (you're doing great by the way!) then why mess with what's working for you?
posted by pianissimo at 5:58 AM on April 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Personally, I find exercising with food in my stomach nauseating, so I usually do my running first thing in the morning. I find that I'm able to make pretty good gains on a completely empty stomach. For longer runs (10k plus), I'll usually bring a sugary drink (lemonade or juice or even gatorade) with which to recharge my energy reserves mid-run but, even at half marathon distances, I won't eat anything before or after.

There is some seemingly pretty solid evidence that there is an optimal window for eating after exercising though, especially if you are trying to build muscle. So even though I'm not super excited for food right after a long run, I try to consume a couple of hundred calories of something reasonably protein rich within half an hour or so of finishing my run.
posted by 256 at 6:50 AM on April 1, 2016

Hey, if you're only eating when you're hungry, you're ahead of 90% of the population. Congrats on knowing what feels right for you.
posted by aimedwander at 7:13 AM on April 1, 2016

I try to eat some carbs and some protein before I go work out. If it's a day where I row and do weights, I will have my usual snack (like a banana) before I go row, and then about 1/2 a protein shake before I lift. Otherwise I am totally going to throw up after my workout.

YMMV. I didn't used to be this way but now my body is super pissy if it doesn't have something to work with. As your metabolism changes your needs may change, so just listen to your body.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:04 AM on April 1, 2016

If you aren't eating before, I'd be more concerned with the "not eating for a few hours after exercising". I would probably want to (at least) eat something within 30 minutes after exercising (myself, I am usually HUNGRY), but something like a protein shake, a piece of toast with peanut butter, a banana, hard boiled egg, etc. Your body needs fuel to build muscle!
posted by rozee at 8:12 AM on April 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a woman. I can't eat first thing in the morning. 99% of the time I work out having only consumed water beforehand, and I wait 45-60 minutes to eat afterward. The only exception is if I ate no dinner the night before, or a light dinner. Then I'll eat a banana or a spoonful of nut butter or some nuts before working out.

I'm no longer lifting as much weight as I used to, but even when I was lifting and squatting more than my body weight, this was my habit. Your body will tell you if it needs food before a workout. The most common way your body would tell you is if you flat out can't lift something/do something you normally can--that means your tank being on empty is not working for you.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 8:24 AM on April 1, 2016

During the week, I workout in the am on an empty stomach. On Saturdays I eat 30 minutes before a vigorous workout in mid morning. The food gives me energy, but I often have to fight barfy feelings.

You're all good, although you should probably eat after.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:47 AM on April 1, 2016

I've always heard that exercising (specifically cardio) on an empty stomach will help you lose weight. I enjoy running when I'm hungry in the evening and never found that I felt weak.

It doesn't sound like losing weight is your main focus though, and if you're exercising in hot and maybe humid conditions, eating before will probably make you nauseous. Try to down a smoothie with fresh fruit and a scoop of protein powder (and maybe creatine and milk) for the bodyweight training, but have it after your workout. Ask your trainer too, and get them to suggest a nutrition plan and chart your lean body mass.

I've always heard that it's time-sensitive and you should ingest protein quickly after a workout but you'll still get benefits (i.e. more muscle) by just increasing protein intake with exercise. If you can't stomach it then forcing yourself to eat something will make you hate the exercise. Better to gain strength slowly and inefficiently (and enjoyably) than risking giving up.

For the hour walk I don't think that you need to do anything special for nutrition. The fact that you're out there exercising will change your mindset and you'll automatically eat better. The only thing to be wary of is thinking that you've burned through a load of calories after a walk and rewarding yourself.
posted by nevan at 12:10 PM on April 1, 2016

If you've eaten you'll be able to exercise more intensely, however if you've faster for 12+ hours the only thing fueling your body for your workout is your body. What matters most is what works for you. There are pros and cons to both fasted and not-fasted workouts.
posted by missmagenta at 1:27 PM on April 1, 2016

I run 4 or so miles on an empty stomach 5 mornings a week at 5 am and rarely eat before 10 am. I have done this for years and it doesn't seem to have harmed me in the least. Every body is different. Do what feels good for your body (as long as that isn't 24/7 ice cream & Cheetos).
posted by hilaryjade at 5:54 PM on April 1, 2016

Thanks! I love hearing how all you guys approach this.
posted by Ziggy500 at 10:20 PM on April 1, 2016

« Older Err, was the pepper pot the Indifferent Mage or...   |   Blah? Meh. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.