For millions of people around the world, caffeine is a non-negotiable part of the day, acting as a quick pick-me-up when energy levels are low. Whether you sip on a hot mug of coffee or enjoy a refreshing glass of iced tea, caffeine has the ability to improve focus, alertness, reaction time and even mood.
But did you know that caffeine can also be beneficial to your health and fitness efforts? Here’s what you need to know about using the substance to reach your overall wellness goals.
The Benefits of Caffeine on Your Fitness Program
Caffeine is a stimulant and can be found in many forms, from natural varieties found in coffee and tea, to non-organic products like energy drinks and supplements.
According to Jeff Lucchino, a sports dietician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), when stimulants enter your body, they immediately begin to increase the heart rate. As the heart is pumping faster, blood is flowing more quickly throughout the body, flooding the muscles with the much-needed oxygen and nutrients that help you sustain exercise levels.
Caffeine can also make working out less difficult, even if you’re feeling weaker than a pot of decaf coffee. Research has shown that caffeine can increase your levels of epinephrine (AKA adrenaline), making your body better prepared for physical activity.
“There is a decreased perceived rate of exertion with caffeine consumption, making the exercise feel easier,” Lucchino says. “It can also decrease your level of exhaustion, so you can go longer.”
But what about those days when you just can’t seem to get in the mood for exercise? Stacy Moutafis, a sports dietician and the owner of SM Fitness, recommends consuming 250 mg of caffeine about 30 minutes before you plan to workout.
“It can give you an initial amped up feeling that can last two to three hours, usually the entire length of the average workout,” she says. “Most people aren’t exercising for longer than this period of time unless they’re doing a marathon or other endurance race.”
If you are one of these endurance athletes, however, caffeine might not be the best option for refueling. Those who sweat it out for more than two hours should consider non-caffeinated energy products, says Lucchino.
“On its own, caffeine is a dehydrator. As the heart beats faster and your internal temperature rises, you sweat more and lose more water,” he explains. “You want to maintain your fluid levels during a workout, not decrease them."
To effectively understand how caffeine affects your body, Lucchino recommends testing caffeine intake during training. Because some people are more or less tolerant its effects, it’s important to know how much and what forms of caffeine your body can handle, especially if you plan to use it to your advantage during a race or competition.
The Benefits of Caffeine on Your Health
As a natural metabolism booster, caffeine has been shown to increase fat burn by up to 29 percent. Pair that with exercise and a healthy diet, and you’ll drastically increase your chances of meeting your weight and fat loss goals.
Have a mile-long to do list? Caffeine can also be beneficial for an important meeting or super busy day, making you more alert, aware and concentrated on the task(s) at hand.
And if all of the aforementioned benefits don’t have you sold yet, studies have shown that caffeine may lower the chances of developing a long list of diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and some cancers. That’s one powerful liquid, if you ask us.
How Much is Too Much?
While the benefits of caffeine are many, our experts admit that it can be highly addictive — and you can easily overdo it.
“There can be benefits in moderation, but it needs to be monitored,” Moutafis says. “If you are jittery or have headaches, insomnia or adrenal fatigue, this could mean you’re taking in too much caffeine.”
For many people, it’s quite easy to build up a tolerance to caffeine, but regardless of how much much you need to consume to feel its effects, experts recommend no more than 400 mg per day. (For reference, your typical 8-ounce cup of coffee contains about 95 mg of caffeine, according to the USDA.)
In fact, Lucchino tells us that consuming more than 300 mg leads to no measurable differences in performance output, so you’re likely not doing yourself any favors by reaching for your fifth cup of coffee.
Both experts pointed to the dangers of children under the age of 18 using caffeine, especially in the forms of energy drinks or shots. Lucchino recommends no more than 100 mg per day for children 12 and under. Any more than that could lead to an overstimulation of heart and neuromuscular system or even diabetes into adulthood. Caffeine has also been linked to decreases in appetite, which could cause dangerous nutrition deficiencies for children.
For adults, the benefits of caffeine on health and fitness can be many, and with the proper monitoring and healthy use of the substance, you can be well on your way to your best and healthiest self.
Erica is a runner, gym rat and outdoor buff based in Austin, Texas. She is a lifelong athlete, having participated in a number of sports from her youth years well into her adult life. Erica has a passion for creating and sharing information, motivation and inspiration to help athletes-in-training across the world. She previously worked as the Running Editor at ACTIVE.com (find her articles here), where she connected with runners of all levels to help them reach their running and fitness goals. You can follow Erica on Twitter or Instagram.
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