Initial Posting: 11/19/2016    Last Update: 12/12/2019
Question: I do moderate exercise for about an hour a few times a week. Which supplements might help me?
Answer: When working out, nutritional needs to consider include hydration and electrolytes, energy, and protein. So let's discuss each of these briefly, as well as supplements providing other vitamins or ingredients — some of which you may want to avoid when working out.
Hydration/Electrolytes/Energy: As long as you are fairly healthy and eating a balanced diet, if you work out for an hour, you only need water to recover; you don't need an "electrolyte" supplement. This was shown in a study which compared water to coconut water and a rehydration sports drink (as discussed in the Coconut Waters Review). Only when doing strenuous exercise for long periods of time (i.e., 90 minutes or more) are you likely to be sweating out enough electrolytes (primarily sodium) to require replenishment. However, after a long-period of strenuous exercise, a drink or food which provides some sugar (energy) may help restore blood sugar levels.
Protein: Extra protein from a powder or drink can help athletes build muscle and older people prevent or reverse age-related loss of muscle strength when used in conjunction with resistance-type exercise (such as free weights, weight machines, resistance bands, or your own body weight — as with squats). If you are not doing resistance-type exercise, extra protein won't help. (However, be aware that many older adults do not get even adequate protein from their diets and intakes higher than current daily recommendations may be needed to reduce muscle loss.) This is discussed in the Protein Powders and Drinks Review, which includes information about types of protein, dosing, and our ratings and comparisons of products.
Evidence for Other Supplements: Branched-chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) may help reduce muscle breakdown during exercise (and reduce soreness from long-distance intense exercise,) but BCAAs do not appear to have performance-enhancing effects. (BCAAs may reduce muscle loss due to inactivity, such as around the time of knee surgery). For more about this, see the Muscle Enhancers Review (Creatine and BCAAs).
Creatine may improve muscle strength and endurance during repeated high-intensity exercise of short duration, such as weight lifting and sprinting. It is not of benefit in purely aerobic exercises. For more information about this, see the Muscle Enhancers Review (Creatine and BCAAs).
Fish oil has been shown to help increase strength from training in women but not in men. For details see the Fish Oil Supplements Review.
Vitamin D supplementation helps increase strength from training among people deficient in vitamin D. However, among people who are not deficient, supplementing with vitamin D may reduce the benefits of exercise. This is explained in the Vitamin D Supplements Review.
Vitamin D isn't the only anti-oxidant which can potentially blunt the benefits effects of exercise. This has also been shown with resveratroland high-doses of vitamins C and E. It has been speculated that during exercise, reactive oxygen species (ROS) are created which trigger positive changes in muscle, but anti-oxidants remove ROS, preventing this from happening.