6 Everyday Foods With Major Fitness Benefits

iStock / iStock

Not into sports drinks or protein bars? Reaching for one of these isn’t essential when you’re trying to get in shape. (In fact, they can be packed with so much sugar that they’re not even good choices unless you’re tackling an especially tough or lengthy workout.) When it comes to fueling up before and after you exercise, there are some beneficial—and somewhat surprising—choices that you likely already have in your cabinet or fridge. Read on for six foods and drinks that research has proven are awesome options for staying energized when you hit the gym and to help your body bounce back quickly afterward.


There’s no end to the kale craze in sight—and now research suggests that it can help you work out harder, too. Eating leafy greens like kale and spinach regularly can help improve your muscle fibers, which in turn can boost your athletic performance—especially during high-intensity exercise, like sprint intervals, and if you’re exercising in a low-oxygen condition, like at high altitude, according to a new Belgian study. Researchers say the greens contain nitrate, which benefits fast-oxidative muscle fibers.


Leave the Gatorade on the shelf and reach for refreshing watermelon juice before you get sweaty: Sipping on the sweet juice an hour before exercise relieved people’s muscle soreness, says a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Researchers say the fruit contains antioxidants and can increase muscle protein.


Leaving the gym and heading for the drive-thru could be a surprisingly good way to help your body recover post-workout. Yes, you read that right: Eating fast food is just as good at restoring glycogen (your muscles’ go-to source of energy) after you work out as traditional options like sports drinks and protein bars, found a recent study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Of course, load up on large fries with a cheeseburger and you can quickly overdo it on calories—so sticking to small servings may be your best bet.


Permission to eat chocolate every day, granted. Nibbling on a couple squares of dark chocolate daily can improve exercisers’ endurance, according to a 2015 study. Researchers from Kingston University in London say the dark chocolate has similar benefits to beetroot juice and aids athletic performance by helping to dilate blood vessels and deliver more oxygen to muscles.


If you don’t have a protein bar on hand after exercising, reaching for a serving of cereal with non-fat milk can do the trick. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found that eating whole-grain cereal with milk is just as effective for promoting recovery after a lengthy workout. A bowl of the breakfast staple provides carbs, which help replenish your muscles’ stores of glycogen, plus protein for muscle repair.


It’s widely known that caffeine can give you a little athletic jolt, and it turns out coffee is an especially good form to get it pre-workout. Downing a couple mugs of coffee before you hit the running trail or gym can help you go longer, according to a recent study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Researchers from the University of Georgia found that when exercisers consumed between 3 and 7 milligrams of caffeine from coffee per kilogram of body weight, their endurance performance increased by about 24 percent. A cup generally contains between 75mg and 150mg of caffeine, so you should feel a boost if you down one before your workout.

All images courtesy of iStock.