While intense exercise, like training for a marathon, or hitting it hard at the gym, is great for our overall health, it can take a toll on the muscles, joints, and ligaments, and cause injury. If you're feeling achy or beat up from overdoing it, you may not be eating enough of the specific nutrients to help your cells recover properly. The usual go-to is to follow a tough workout with protein, to replenish amino acids that will help rebuild or repair muscle that breaks down when you go hard, a new study indicates that you could do yourself a favor by adding citrus fruit. A specific compound in citrus was just shown to help athletes improve performance.

The study, published in Antioxidants, found that a flavonoid in citrus called hesperidin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In previous research, hesperidin has been tested on animals, but there was little or no evidence of how it could affect humans until now, which shows that hesperidin works to reduce inflammation and boost athletic performance.

Oranges, grapefruit, lemon, and tangerines all contain hesperidin, which is also available in supplement form.

Exercise increases inflammation

The study of exercise continues to evolve, and this is just the latest step in our understanding of how the body repairs itself after exertion. We know that working out hard prompts an inflammatory response in the body, which is why spacing out tough sessions is critical to avoid injury. A 2020 review states that moderate-intensity activity can enhance immune function more than staying sedentary, but once you cross over to excessive, high-intense exercise it may lead to impaired immune function. This is why it’s important to allow yourself rest periods between workouts, which can also prevent injury.

According to the CDC, vigorous-intense exercise creates a heart rate that falls between 77 percent and 93 percent of your maximum heart rate. In order to calculate your maximum heart rate, you would subtract your age by 220. For example, a 30-year-old would have a maximum heart rate of 190 beats per minute (bpm). Vigorous-intense exercise would then give them a heart rate of 146 to 176 bpm.

When inflammation is in the body for a long period of time, it can turn chronic which may lead to several diseases. According to a 2020 article, 3 out of 5 individuals worldwide die from chronic inflammatory diseases such as stroke, respiratory disease, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes.

How much exercise is recommended?

To get improved health benefits from exercising, the CDC recommends adults to get 150 minutes of moderate-intense aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) every week plus 2 or more days of muscle-strengthening activities (like lifting weights). If you enjoy more vigorous-intense exercising, the amount is cut back to 75 minutes every week along with the 2 days of muscle-strengthening activities.

The CDC also states that going beyond these numbers will help you gain even more health benefits, but shouldn’t be pushed too far. You’ll notice you may be exercising too much if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling tired and irritable
  • Getting sick more often
  • Unable to perform at the same level
  • Feeling sore or have heavy limbs
  • Losing too much weight
  • Getting injured

If these symptoms occur, it’s important to either cut back on exercise or rests completely for one to two weeks.

How citrus can help

Flavonoids are compounds found in a variety of fruits and vegetables that provide antioxidant effects. A well-known flavonoid is called hesperidin, which is available in high concentrations in citrus fruits such as sweet oranges. There are two forms of hesperidin, 2S- and 2R-, with 2S being the common form found in nature.

When we work out, part of the oxygen we intake converts into reactive oxygen species (ROS). Too much ROS and can cause tissue damage, impaired muscle contraction, and fatigue. ROS can become excessive when high intense or exhaustive exercise is performed.

There have been animal studies that indicate the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of hesperidin, but researchers wanted to determine how it could affect humans especially when it came to inflammatory status in amateur cyclists.

The study divided 40 subjects into two separate groups, with 20 taking a 2S-hesperidin supplement (500 mg/day) and the other 20 receiving a placebo pill for 8 weeks. Participants were also male amateur cyclists between the age of 18 and 55 years old that trained for 6 to 12 hours per week.

The cyclists went through multiple tests over the 8 weeks to determine maximal fat oxidation zones, ventilatory thresholds, and maximal oxygen consumptions. Each test was performed at different intensities for each zone. The results found that the 2S-hesperidin group had improvements in oxidative status, antioxidant capacity, and inflammatory status. With these improvements, cyclists are able to improve their recovery after long, intense exercise sessions.

Other tips to reduce inflammation and improve exercise performance

Besides stocking up on all the citrus fruits you can get your hands on, there are many other foods that could help combat inflammation. This includes foods that contain healthy fats, like olive oil and nuts, and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables like green leafy veggies and berries.

On the other hand, there are some foods that may offset those beneficial foods and increase inflammation. According to Harvard Health, foods such as refined carbs, fried foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, red and processed meat, and margarine can cause inflammatory responses when eaten.

Research has indicated that following a plant-based diet could be the route to go if you’re looking to improve inflammation, endurance performance, and even immune response. A 2020 review suggested that a plant-based diet was beneficial in improving levels of proteins that stimulate inflammation response. It was also found that lymphocyte responsiveness improved, along with natural killer cells, which are white blood cells that are the body’s main type of immune cells.

It’s believed these changes come from the high phytochemical (such as polyphenols) intake that a plant-based diet provides. Combine that with a limited intake of refined carbohydrates and saturated fat, and it leads to small improvements in endurance performance.

Bottom line: A compound in citrus fruits has the ability to reduce anti-inflammatory markers, helping amateur cyclists perform better and reduce inflammation that can come with exercising.  Oranges, grapefruit, lemon, and tangerines all contain hesperidin, which is also available in supplement form. Research also indicates an overall plant-based diet can have the same benefits.

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