Carefree Exercising, Free Radicals – Can it Harm Your body?

woman in black tank top and black shorts sitting on black exercise equipment
Photo by GRAHAM MANSFIELD on Unsplash

You know about the benefits of exercise, how it can make you healthier, feel better, look better, and even live longer — that’s why you exercise, right? But did you know that every time you exercise, you force your body to manufacture free radicals — substances implicated in heart disease, cancer, and even aging? Sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it?

children, splash, asia, free radicals
Photo by sasint

Before you start thinking that exercise is bad for you, which it isn’t (unless you have some medical issues — always consult your physician before beginning an exercise program), realize that along with the many benefits of exercise are some potentially harmful effects — more specifically, an increase in the formation of dangerous free radicals.

Where do free radicals come from?

It’s in the air. The problem stems from Oxygen — the stuff we can’t live without. Of the oxygen we breathe in, a tiny portion (a few percent or less) is used to form small but potentially damaging free radicals. Some of these highly reactive free radicals are actually needed by the body to form essential substances, such as prostaglandins. Still, the rest of the free radicals can cause havoc throughout the body if they aren’t neutralized. Since the amount of free radicals formed in the body is directly proportional to the amount of oxygen we ingest, exercise increases the synthesis of these damaging molecules.

red light ball illustration, free radicals
Photo by Zoltan Tasi

One example of free radical damage is the oxidation of cholesterol in low-density lipoproteins. When the cholesterol becomes oxidized by free radicals, it has a much better chance of sticking to the arterial walls, increasing the risk of heart disease.

What to do:

Use antioxidants. What are antioxidants? The solution to the problem created by free radicals is clear and simple. Ingest more antioxidants such as vitamins C, E, and Beta-carotene. The rationale is simple — since free radicals are formed due to oxygen, they exert their detrimental effect by oxidizing essential components of the cell, such as the cell membrane, receptors, enzymes, and even DNA — the cell’s genetic material.

The only way to stop this damaging oxidation process is to ensure that you have plenty of antioxidants.  Vitamin C was shown to inhibit the growth of T-lymphocytes (HIV-infected immune cells). In relation to cancer, vitamin C inhibited the growth of certain tumors, prolonging the life of animals with cancer and decreasing the radiation damage resulting from chemotherapy. All this points to increased longevity.

The take-home lesson

Ensure you’re ingesting at least 500 mg of vitamin C, 100 iu of vitamin E, and 10,000 IU of Beta-carotene — proven optimal amounts. You can easily acquire these vitamin C and Beta-carotene levels by eating at least 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables daily or taking a chewable vitamin C tablet. And don’t forget to eat one medium size carrot a day. For example, one carrot contains approximately 20,000 iu of Beta-carotene, while one orange contains about 70 mg of vitamin C.

Vitamin E intake, however, is a different story. In fact, to obtain what many feel is an optimal level requires taking a supplement of vitamin E. Of course, this depends on whether you are presently taking these supplements. If you are, check them to see how much vitamin E they contain. If you get at least 100 iu daily, you do not need to take a separate vitamin E supplement. If not, you should switch your multiple vitamins to one with more or just take a particular vitamin E supplement.

You don’t need massive amounts — 100 or 200 IU capsules will do just fine. And remember, since vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, you will absorb more of it if you ingest it with meals. Exercise, don’t oxidize.

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