Nutrition, exercise and sports

This research theme within the Division of Human Nutrition and Health, chair group Nutritional Biology, addresses the interplay between nutrition and physical activity in order to optimize health benefits, or affect performance and recovery. Target group ranges from patients and persons with a sedentary lifestyle to recreationally-active and elite athletes. Main focus is on exercise and cardiorespiratory fitness. Emphasis is on the role of carbohydrate and protein in the adaptive response to exercise, (micro)nutrient intake and status in athletes, and the effect of exercise on gut health and the immune system.

Research topics

Nutrition and exercise to support training adaptation, performance and health

Nutrition plays an important role in exercise recovery and training adaptation. Recommendations are formulated for athletes to support optimal performance. However it is recognized that nutritional requirements to optimize skeletal muscle adaptation with training can differ, depending on, amongst others, training goals and type of exercise. Protein intake and timing after resistance exercise is well investigated, for endurance exercise its impact on changes in aerobic performance are less well established. In addition, a low carbohydrate availability can amplify endurance training adaptation, while energy abundance is more favourable in the case of resistance or power exercise. A better understanding of the interactions between nutritional intake and exercise (‘smart training’) will likely improve training adaptation, but also performance and health.

(Micro)nutrient intake and status in athletes

Energy-restricted or unbalanced diets providing inadequate amounts of certain (micro-) nutrients are quite common in sports, in particular where leanness or low body mass are considered advantageous or required to meet  weight class criteria. Low nutrient intake or even deficiencies may limit training adaptation and performance, impair immunity and increase the risk of infections in athletes. Furthermore they are linked to well-established health problems like the female athlete triad. At the same time, much less is known about what makes  optimal micronutrient levels for performance and health of athletes. Until now most attention has been paid to vitamin D and iron. Better monitoring of (micro)nutrient intake and status is crucial for training and performance and to optimize nutritional counselling of athletes.

Exercise stress and response

An acute bout of endurance exercise results in an inflammatory response in muscle, the local induction of numerous cytokines (‘myokines’), a reduced gut barrier function and elevated levels of several of cytokines in the circulation. This response is suggested to contribute  to the beneficial effects of regular exercise, leading to both an increased athletic performance as well as the improvement of metabolic health. However, in certain situations  an ongoing, undesirable condition of chronic inflammation can develop. This can occur for example when high volume/intensity training, combined with insufficient rest,  produces musculoskeletal trauma. This may, in turn, induce a more generalised response,  involving  various other tissues and organ systems . Ultimately, a complex of symptoms associated  with overtraining may develop. More insight in mechanisms of stress response following physical exercise and methodology to monitor these processes is warranted. This is not only relevant to improve training efficiency of athletes but also to better understand  the beneficial metabolic effects of regular exercise.

Non-athletic populations

Nutritional strategies to optimize adaptation to exercise do not only apply to athletes but are also of relevance for metabolic health in general, and for clinical patients preparing for or recovering of major clinical interventions. A good cardiorespiratory fitness (‘aerobic capacity’) is not only linked to performance in athletes, but is also strongly associated to health and survival. Concepts like ‘Exercise is medicine’ and (p)rehabilitation programs to prevent functional decline and/or accelerate recovery will benefit from nutritional support. These topics are investigated in close collaboration with Hospital “Gelderse Vallei’.

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