Antioxidants and exercise: How they work together to boost performance

They say teamwork makes the dream work, but what if there’s a dynamic duo that not only makes dreams come true but also helps you break a sweat? Antioxidants and exercise.

In pursuing enhanced physical performance, the intricate relationship between antioxidants and exercise has emerged as a captivating frontier of scientific exploration. 

The human body is constantly exposed to external and internal stressors that can lead to oxidative damage – a process characterized by producing harmful free radicals. At the same time, exercise pushes the body to its limits, triggering metabolic pathways that generate free radicals as byproducts. 

Welcome to the world where antioxidants and exercise join forces to create a symphony of strength, resilience, and performance gains.

What is the mechanism of action of antioxidants?

Antioxidants have emerged as the superheroes combating the invisible foes that threaten our cells. But what exactly are antioxidants, and how do they wield their protective power?

Exploring antioxidants

  • Antioxidants against oxidative stress

Antioxidants are the unsung heroes within our bodies, tirelessly combating the effects of oxidative stress [1]. These compounds neutralize harmful molecules known as free radicals, generated during various metabolic processes and external factors like pollution and UV radiation. 

  • Types of antioxidants: From vitamins to polyphenols

Antioxidants come in a diverse array of forms, each with distinct mechanisms and sources. Vitamins C and E act as antioxidants by intercepting free radicals and inhibiting their destructive potential. 

Oxidative stress and its impact

  • Oxidative stress behind cellular damage

Oxidative stress occurs when the production of free radicals surpasses the body’s natural defense mechanisms, leading to cellular damage and potential harm to DNA, proteins, and lipids. 

It is a double-edged sword during exercise, both a necessary trigger for adaptive responses and a potential detriment if not managed appropriately.

  • Oxidative stress during exercise

Engaging in physical activity triggers an array of physiological responses, including the production of free radicals. These free radicals, generated mainly in muscle cells, are byproducts of processes like mitochondrial respiration and immune cell activation. 

While moderate levels of oxidative stress induced by exercise can promote cellular repair and adaptation, excessive levels can lead to muscle fatigue, inflammation, and impaired performance.

Oxidative stress during exercise
Photograph: Iakobchuk/Envato

Mechanisms of antioxidant action

  • How antioxidants counter oxidative damage

Antioxidants operate through a fascinating process of electron donation, effectively neutralizing free radicals by stabilizing their unpaired electrons. This action prevents the free radicals from stealing electrons from vital cellular components, thereby mitigating the chain reaction of damage. 

  • The body’s innate antioxidant machinery

Beyond exogenous antioxidants from diet and supplements, the body possesses its intricate defense systems. 

Enzymes like superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase combine to neutralize free radicals and maintain redox balance. 

These enzymatic pathways are finely tuned to respond to varying levels of oxidative stress, highlighting the body’s remarkable adaptability in the face of challenges.

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What are the effects of exercise on the body and mind?

Exercise takes center stage as the ultimate transformative force. Beyond the sweat and muscle contractions lies a symphony of physiological changes that shape our bodies and minds.

From the energetic dance of metabolic pathways to the exhilarating rise and fall of heartbeats, exercise leaves an indelible mark on every fiber of our being.

Exercise and metabolic pathways

  • Metabolic pathways: The energetic transformation during exercise

When you engage in physical activity, your body undergoes a complex series of metabolic reactions to generate the energy required for muscle contraction and movement. 

These metabolic pathways include aerobic and anaerobic processes, which break down carbohydrates, fats, and sometimes proteins to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cellular energy currency.

  • Free radicals generation during exercise

Exercise-induced free radical production is an inherent consequence of metabolic processes, particularly during high-intensity efforts. 

As oxygen is consumed to produce ATP, a small fraction can be inadvertently transformed into free radicals. Skeletal muscles, being highly active during exercise, contribute significantly to this process. 

Exercise intensity and oxidative stress

  • Impact of exercise intensity

The intensity of exercise plays a pivotal role in the oxidative stress response. Low to moderate exercise stimulates the body’s antioxidant defenses, leading to a controlled level of oxidative stress that promotes cellular adaptation and repair. 

However, high-intensity exercise can overwhelm the body’s antioxidant capacity, resulting in an imbalance that triggers inflammation, muscle damage, and reduced performance. 

  • Oxidative stress as a signaling molecule

Paradoxically, the controlled oxidative stress induced by exercise signals the body to adapt and become more resilient. This phenomenon, known as hormesis, involves brief exposures to stressors that ultimately enhance the body’s ability to handle future challenges. 

Mitochondria and exercise

  • The role of mitochondria

Mitochondria, often referred to as the “powerhouses” of cells, play a central role in energy production [2]. 

During exercise, the demand for ATP surges, necessitating an increased rate of oxidative phosphorylation – the process through which ATP is synthesized using oxygen. This heightened mitochondrial activity simultaneously boosts free radical production. 

  • Redox signaling and enhanced performance

Regular exercise prompts remarkable adaptations within mitochondria. The increased production of free radicals during exercise triggers redox signaling pathways that stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis – the creation of new mitochondria. 

These “trained” mitochondria exhibit improved efficiency, better coupling between oxygen consumption and ATP production, and heightened antioxidant defense mechanisms. 

Pre-exercise antioxidant supplementation

  • Can antioxidant supplements diminish gains?

Antioxidant supplements have gained popularity as potential tools to counteract exercise-induced oxidative stress. However, research findings have been mixed, revealing a nuanced relationship between antioxidant supplementation and exercise outcomes. 

  • Timing and dosage: Navigating the optimal strategies

The effectiveness of antioxidant supplementation hinges on the delicate balance between bolstering antioxidant defenses and allowing controlled oxidative stress to drive adaptation. 

Timing is critical – consuming antioxidants immediately before exercise might interfere with the signaling pathways that prompt beneficial adaptations. 

Post-exercise recovery and antioxidants

  • Opportunities for antioxidant intervention

The post-exercise recovery phase is characterized by muscle tissue repair, replenishment, and growth. Here, antioxidants can mitigate inflammation, reduce oxidative damage, and expedite the repair process. 

Consuming antioxidant-rich foods or supplements during this window can aid in faster recovery, reducing muscle soreness and enhancing overall recuperation.

  • Muscle damage reduction

Intense exercise can lead to micro-tears in muscle fibers, triggering an inflammatory response as the body works to repair the damage. While inflammation is a natural part of the healing process, excessive inflammation can impede recovery and hinder performance in subsequent workouts. 

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Long-term training adaptations

  • Antioxidants as training aids

The interplay between antioxidants and exercise becomes even more intricate in long-term training adaptations. Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants can provide the body with the resources to manage oxidative stress while reaping the rewards of exercise-induced adaptation. 

  • Balancing adaptation and antioxidant use

The synergy between antioxidants and exercise is marked by a delicate balancing act [3]. While antioxidants can alleviate oxidative stress and promote recovery, excessive antioxidant intake might attenuate the signals that drive beneficial adaptations. 

Long-term training adaptations
Photograph: Prostock-studio/Envato

What food is rich in antioxidants?

Pre-exercise antioxidant supplementation

  • Incorporating a variety of antioxidants

One of the most effective ways to optimize antioxidant intake is through a diverse and nutrient-dense diet. 

Fruits and vegetables of various colors – from vibrant greens to rich purples – offer a spectrum of antioxidants, each with unique protective properties. 

  • Key nutrients: Vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals

A robust antioxidant defense relies on an array of nutrients that work in harmony. Vitamins C and E, selenium, and zinc are pivotal in neutralizing free radicals and supporting antioxidant enzyme systems. 

Additionally, phytochemicals like flavonoids and carotenoids possess antioxidant properties and can amplify the body’s protective responses.

Diet composition and exercise performance

  • Macronutrient balance: Fueling performance and mitigating stress

The composition of your diet significantly influences exercise performance and oxidative stress responses. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats all contribute to energy production and recovery, shaping your body’s ability to endure and adapt to exercise stress [4]. 

Carbohydrates, in particular, are a primary source of fuel for intense workouts and help spare protein for muscle repair. 

  • Enhancing recovery and sustaining energy

Antioxidant-rich foods combat oxidative stress and play a vital role in post-exercise recovery

During recovery, antioxidants assist in reducing inflammation, supporting tissue repair, and expediting muscle glycogen replenishment. This, in turn, enhances your readiness for subsequent workouts and promotes consistent performance gains. 

Hydration and antioxidant intake

  • The role of hydration: Amplifying antioxidant effects

Hydration serves as a foundational element of performance optimization, and its connection to antioxidants is profound. Staying adequately hydrated ensures that antioxidants are efficiently transported to cells, enabling them to fulfill their protective roles effectively. 

Moreover, hydration helps regulate body temperature, minimizes oxidative stress induced by exercise, and supports overall physiological function. 

  • Optimizing performance through adequate hydration

Adequate fluid balance is critical during exercise to prevent dehydration, which can exacerbate oxidative stress and impair exercise performance. 

Electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium, often lost through sweat, also play a role in maintaining cellular function and antioxidant defense. 

Hydrating before, during, and after exercise with water and electrolyte-rich beverages can optimize fluid balance, enhance antioxidant delivery, and contribute to consistent performance gains.


The paradox of antioxidants lies in their dual nature – they are potent allies against oxidative stress. Yet, excessive supplementation might hinder the body’s adaptive responses to exercise. 

Recognizing that the body’s defense mechanisms are finely tuned for managing oxidative stress underscores the importance of a thoughtful, balanced approach. 

Antioxidants are tools that, when wielded wisely, can amplify the benefits of exercise while safeguarding overall health.


Can antioxidants completely eliminate oxidative stress?

Antioxidants play a crucial role in mitigating oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals. However, completely eliminating oxidative stress is not advisable, as controlled levels are necessary for adaptive responses and cellular signaling.

Is it better to obtain antioxidants from food or supplements?

Prioritizing antioxidants from whole foods is recommended, as they offer a holistic mix of nutrients. Supplements should be used judiciously, considering their potential to interfere with exercise-induced adaptations.

What role do antioxidants play in post-exercise recovery?

Antioxidants contribute to post-exercise recovery by reducing inflammation, supporting tissue repair, and expediting overall recuperation. This aids in minimizing muscle soreness and enhancing readiness for subsequent workouts.

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Photograph: Iakobchuk/Envato
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