Building Strength and Endurance

Despite the U.S. epidemic of overweight, many Americans have gotten the memo from the medical community regarding the importance of physical activity and fitness. The government reports that the number of adults who get the recommended amount of physical activity (at least thirty minutes a day, five days a week) and perform the recommended minimum amount of strength training (at least two days a week) has increased in the last few years, especially among women. At the same time, plenty of people are hitting the gym for decidedly different reasons, as both men and women face plenty of societal pressures to be (or at least look) fit — women striving to be thin, men to be strong and muscular.

Store shelves are brimming with supplements promising to deliver ripped muscles, increased strength, and bottomless endurance. Many of these products are targeted at athletes looking to wring just a little bit more out of their training, while others are aimed at sedentary folks looking for a shortcut to a better physique. Substances that improve your exercise performance — they help you run faster, lift more weight, or ride your bicycle longer — are called ergogenic aids.

Unfortunately, many of the OTC products being sold in drug and health food stores (and on the Internet) aren't going to do much for you, and some might even be dangerous. For example, experts advise against combining herbal stimulants like guarana (Paullinia cupana), bitter orange (Citrus aurantium), and caffeine.

However, there are herbs that have been used traditionally and safely, for thousands of years, to improve physical performance and appearance — and that really can help modern folks, too. They include:

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Research has shown that Asian ginseng can improve exercise performance in cyclists and runners. Other studies show that American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) can decrease muscle damage in athletes.

Coffee (Coffea arabica)

Caffeine has been shown to increase strength, reduce fatigue, and boost performance, particularly in endurance activities and other “submaximal” efforts (less so in sprinting and other activities that use short bursts of energy). It also helps muscles recover, post-workout. Guarana (Paullinia cupana), mate (Ilex paraguarensis), and tea (Camellia sinensis) are also sources of caffeine.

Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)

These inedible and very unappetizing fungi (they grow on insect larvae) are used to treat high cholesterol and fatigue in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Modern studies show that taking cordyceps extracts can increase aerobic fitness.

Maritime pine (Pinus pinaster)

Research shows that taking pine extracts improves exercise performance in treadmill runners.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosis)

Eleuthero has demonstrated performance-boosting benefits and seems to allow athletes to train more intensely with less fatigue.

Pineapple (Ananas comosus)

Bromelain, an enzyme extracted from pineapple plants, has been shown to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and soreness.

Men who “bulk up” in order to play better football (or just look beefier at the beach) may be doing long-term harm to their bodies. A new study shows that building excessive muscle mass can contribute to metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions including high cholesterol, elevated blood sugar, and excessive weight gain, which is a proven risk factor for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

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