Q: The harder I train, the more bloated I feel. What's up with that?
A: Your imagination hasn't gone wild. While counterintuitive, workouts can prompt bloating—especially for those new to exercise, returning from hiatus, or amping up their regimens, says Anja Garcia, RN, an AFAA certified trainer at DailyBurn.com. Here’s what happens: when you exercise, the body enters a stressful state, triggering the adrenal gland to release the stress hormone cortisol. This disturbs fluids, says Garcia, spurring the body to retain water, leading to that pudgy feeling. The good news, though, is that post-workout bloat typically vanishes within two weeks of adjusting to new routines, says Garcia. So hang in there.
Meanwhile, you can modify your diet to curb the bloating, says Garcia. Nix starches and sugary foods and eat foods low on the glycemic index, including lean protein (turkey, poultry, fish) and egg whites, which can lower cortisol levels. Several recent studies have also found vitamin C to have a similar effect on cortisol, including one in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, so eating more kale, leafy greens, strawberries, oranges, and kiwis—or asking your doctor about vitamin-C supplements—might help as well.
With that in mind, though, you should also check your fiber intake, suggests Stella Lucia Volpe, PhD, RD, chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences at Drexel University. Loading up on fiber too heavily or too soon pre-workout—especially when not drinking enough water—can cause bloating, so you may need to adjust fiber intake or hydrate more. (Guzzle eight to 10 glasses daily, remembering to down even more when increasing the frequency or intensity of your workouts.) And even though hardcore exercisers can generally afford more salt, thanks to serious sweating, you still can overdo it with sodium. Salt will pack that water in, says Dr. Volpe.
So the bottom line? Wait it out if you’ve just increased the intensity, and eat healthy, balanced meals—while drinking lots of water—in the meantime. Garcia says you should aim to include lean protein, vitamin C, and potassium in each meal, and Dr. Volpe suggests adding healthy fats (think cortisol-lowering omega 3s) and complex carbs (like whole grains) to the mix as well. (Her victory dinner: Grilled salmon, steamed broccoli, and ½ cup of brown rice with olive oil and dried cranberries.) And if bloating persists past three weeks, see your doc, says Dr. Volpe. It's probably nothing to worry about, but it could signal a food allergy or intolerance that's worth addressing.
- Anja Garcia, RN, is a registered pediatric ICU nurse, fitness instructor, AFAA certified group exercise instructor, and health coach who studied public health as an undergrad at the University of California, Berkeley.
- Stella Lucia Volpe, PhD, RD, is professor and chair, Department of Nutrition Sciences at Drexel University, as well as Co-Director of its Center for Integrated Nutrition & Performance.