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As we breathe in oxygen, our body consumes it and uses it to power functions in the body. An influx of new oxygen from exercise creates “oxidative stress.” Oxidative stress is a condition caused by a surplus of oxidants compared to antioxidants due to an increase of consumed oxygen by the body.

Normally, the human body has a natural balance of oxidants/antioxidants. It uses antioxidants from our diet to counteract leftover oxidants floating as free radicals in the body.

CrossFit, distance running, or other intense activities lead to an increase in oxygen consumption. Specifically, increased oxygen consumption from exercise increases the number of oxidants relative to antioxidants.

As a result, Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) are produced from available oxidants and known to “cause damage to cell structures” such as carbohydrates and proteins and “alter their functions [1].” A net effect of this is a link between increased oxidative stress and diseases such as cancer, hypertension, diabetes and other pathological conditions. In addition, an increase in oxidants can be directly related to factors such as a higher intake of air pollutants and cigarette smoke.

Does the Type of Exercise Matter? Oxidative Stress in Sports

During high-energy exercise, a person’s oxygen consumption rate can increase up to 20 times. This response by the body is not unique to any particular form of physical activity. The amount of oxygen consumption directly relates to the intensity and duration of the exercise[2].

CrossFit

A study compared athletes completing the CrossFit workout “Cindy” (20 minutes of push-ups, pull-ups and air squats) compared to a 20-minute run on a treadmill at a 90 percent max heart rate. This type of run was chosen to simulate the cardiovascular demand of the CrossFit workout “Cindy.”

The results showed consistencies in the production of oxidative stress between the two styles of exercise. Furthermore, the levels of oxidative stress experienced by the two groups of athletes were “statistically identical.”

The study concludes, “when closely matched for exercise time and intensity,” a CrossFit workout will likely produce the same oxidative stress as distance running [3].

Marathons and Ultramarathons

A study was performed on endurance runners competing in the famous Marathon Des Sables ultramarathon. Specifically, scientists wanted to find the best vitamins for athletes to reduce markers of inflammation as they competed.

To measure this, scientists conducted a double-blind, placebo study on the runners tracking levels of oxidative stress at multiple points, starting twenty-one days before, again on the third day of the race and at the end of the race.

One key marker scientists measured was plasma lipid peroxidation (PLP). PLP is a process in which free radicals “steal” electrons from the lipids in cell membranes, resulting in cell damage. Overall, the study found all groups experienced increased levels of oxidative stress from the biomarkers tested during the event.

However, the results also indicated positive results for the group on a “multivitamin-mineral supplementation” compared to the placebo group. Their daily supplementation with vitamin A, C and E prevented the expected spike in PLP from the ultramarathon [4].

Olympic Sports

Another study looked at 40 athletes competing in three different sports. All athletes were competing at international levels in basketball, wrestling and soccer. Similar to before, they found “types of sport had no impact on the levels of oxidative status markers.”

Moreover, they define “elite sports engagement” of any kind as a “potent stimulus of oxidative stress.” Finally, the study concluded with advice that “consumption of antioxidants is recommended as part of a training regimen [5].”

Decidedly, multiple studies show that regardless of sport, oxidative stress is dependent on oxygen consumption increases. A dramatic increase in oxidants from exercise unbalances the body and increases the prevalence of inflammation as a result.

Following this, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, also a former marathon runner, found a disturbing trend among his fellow friends and runners. Distance runners in ideal health were developing pathological diseases (cancers, Alzheimer’s and ALS) at rates higher than average.

Oxidative Stress and Exercise in Age Groups

Oxidative stress is not limited to specific age groups either. For example, a study of more than 1,100 women ages 43-70 was performed to study the changes in the body from different levels of exercise. In detail, researchers wanted to understand the effect of exercise on Superoxide Dismutase (SOD) activity in the body.

SOD activity is a way to measure the ability of the body to neutralize free radicals and lower the amount of harmful ROS activity.

Results showed SOD activity decreased as the women increased their level of exercise. The group that performed the most activity had the most significant drop in overall SOD activity relative to its non-vigorous counterpart [6]. In addition, another study examined oxidative stress from physical activity in independent community-living elderly individuals. The study came away with crucial takeaways after measuring different amounts of physical activity in the groups.

First, moderate to vigorous physical activity was a “protective factor against cellular damage.” Second, in the elderly participants, “physical activity decreased the total antioxidant status [7].” The results show the benefit of exercise even as we age. Yet, the results also show again that exercise increases the number of oxidants compared to antioxidants.

Regardless of age or exercise, markers of inflammation are more prevalent as oxygen consumption increases. Knowing this, how can coaches and athletes use this data to improve performance?

How Recovery Time for Athletes is Affected by Oxidative Stress

A new and more common way to apply measuring markers of inflammation is to use it as a guide to recovery. One way to do this is to use them in conjunction but not in place of standard performance tests. By doing this, coaches can better understand the physical response exercise causes in the body of elite athletes.

A 2016 article in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research advocates “biomarkers are not a replacement for performance tests.” However, “when used in conjunction, they may offer a better indication of metabolic recovery status.” Measuring these levels can “improve a coach’s ability to assess the recovery period after an exercise session and to establish the intensity of subsequent training sessions. [8]”

Similarly, the journal Sports Medicine gives their “Practical Overview” to enhance recovery in team sport athletes. The journal looked at multiple studies on numerous combinations of food and nutritional supplement for improving recovery. They advise that “Overall, a nutrient-dense diet consumed throughout the day, in combination with a few selected supplements, can support the athletes’ recovery goals during the competitive season [9].”

Diet and Dietary Supplements Reduce Oxidative Stress

Ultimately, oxidative stress is a function of oxygen intake over time. Therefore, no matter the form, intense exercise unbalances the oxidant/antioxidant levels in the body.

The introduction of antioxidants from food and supplements can help restore this balance to improve the recovery rate for the body.

First and foremost, Dr. Cooper advocates eating a healthy and balanced diet as a part of his 8 Steps to Get Cooperized. Additionally, another step in his process is taking a daily nutritional supplement.

Key antioxidants in our diet include:

  • Coffee and tea
  • Beans
  • Dark chocolate
  • Fruits, especially blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries and pomegranate
  • Nuts and seeds, especially walnuts and pecans, and sunflower seeds
  • Vibrantly colored vegetables such as artichokes, bell peppers (all colors), beets, broccoli, red cabbage, carrots, kale, spinach and sweet potatoes
  • Whole grains

The key antioxidants in vitamins, minerals and flavonoids include:

  • Beta-carotene
  • Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
  • Lutein
  • Lycopene
  • Quercetin
  • Selenium
  • Turmeric
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Zeaxanthin
  • Zinc

Importantly, we advise consulting your physician before starting a new workout regimen to determine individual needs.

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References

[1] Birben, E., Sahiner, U. M., Sackesen, C., Erzurum, S., & Kalayci, O. (2012). Oxidative Stress and Antioxidant Defense. The World Allergy Organization Journal, 5(1), 9–19. http://doi.org/10.1097/WOX.0b013e3182439613 [PMC free article online]
[2] Burton, D., Stokes, K., Hall, G. (2004). Physiological effects of exercise. Continuing Education in Anaesthesia Critical Care & Pain, 4(6), 185–188. [Oxford Academic free article]
[3] Kliszczewicz, B., Quindry, C. J., Blessing, L. D., Oliver, D. G., Esco, R. M., & Taylor, J. K. (2015). Acute Exercise and Oxidative Stress: CrossFitTM vs. Treadmill Bout. Journal of Human Kinetics, 47, 81–90. http://doi.org/10.1515/hukin-2015-0064 [PMC free article]
[4] Machefer, G., Groussard, G., Vincent, S., Zouhal, H., Faure, H., Cillard, J., Radák, Z., Gratas-Delamarche, A. (2013). Multivitamin-Mineral Supplementation Prevents Lipid Peroxidation during “The Marathon des Sables.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 26(2), 111–120. [Taylor & Francis Online]
[5] Hadžović – Džuvo, A., Valjevac, A., Lepara, O., Pjanić, S., Hadžimuratović, A., & Mekić, A. (2014). Oxidative stress status in elite athletes engaged in different sport disciplines. Bosnian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, 14(2), 56–62. [PMC free article]
[6] Yang S, Jensen MK, Mallick P, Rimm EB, Willett WC, et al. (2015) Physical Activity and Oxidative Stress Biomarkers in Generally Healthy Women. Journal of Community Medicine & Health Education, 5(5), 377–384. [OMICS International free article]
[7] Fraile-Bermudez, A., Kortajarena, M., Zarrazquin, I., Maquibar, A., Yanugas, J., Sanchez-Fernandez, C., Gil, J., Irazusta, A., Ruiz-Litago, F. (2015). Relationship between physical activity and markers of oxidative stress in independent community-living elderly individuals. Experimental Gerontology, 70(1), 26-31. [ScienceDirect]
[8] Bessa, A., Oliveira, V., Agostini, G., Oliveira, R., Oliveira, A., White, G., Wells, G., Teixeira, D., Espindola, F. (2016). Exercise Intensity and Recovery: Biomarkers of Injury, Inflammation, and Oxidative Stress. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 30(2), 311-319. [Journal of the NSCA]
[9] Heaton, L., Davis, J., Rawson, E., Nuccio, R., Witard, O., Stein, K., Baar, K., Carter, J., Baker, L. (2017). Selected In-Season Nutritional Strategies to Enhance Recovery for Team Sport Athletes: A Practical Overview. Sports Medicine, 47(11), 2201-2218. [SpringerLink free article]
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