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January 09, 2019

Working out on an empty stomach: the pros and cons

Fitness Nutrition

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struggling to lift weights at gym Victor Freitas/

To eat or not to eat before working out? That is a hotly contested debate among exercise enthusiasts. Some believe that skipping a meal is a foolproof way to burn fat and lose more weight while others argue that your body needs fuel from food in order to make the most of a vigorous workout. There are certainly pros and cons to each approach, and factors like your age, gender, lifestyle, and metabolism all play a part in how your body responds to physical activity.

The pros

Exercising on an empty stomach has been proven to burn more stored fat. Studies conducted at the University of Bath in the U.K. found that when overweight men walked for 60 minutes on an empty stomach, their bodies activated certain genes that increased their rate of burning stored fat compared to those who exercised after a carb-heavy breakfast. Because energy derived from carbs isn’t readily available if you haven’t eaten, your body is forced to draw energy from other sources.

This is good news if you’re trying to get a jumpstart on a new fitness routine. After a full night’s sleep, your body is essentially in fasting mode. If you save breakfast for after your morning run or yoga class, you’ll be better able to burn your fat stores and start shedding some pounds.

The cons

Working out on an empty stomach also has its downsides. By skipping a meal before rigorous activity, your stomach will not only be growling with hunger — it will also cramp more easily. You also run the risk of getting dizzy or lightheaded, which increases your chances of a fall or other serious injury. You could even enter a hypoglycemic state, in which your blood sugar falls so low that you could lose consciousness and pass out.

Medical research also points to another potential pitfall: if there’s no food in your system, your body doesn’t necessarily start burning fat in its place. Your body might actually start breaking down muscle tissue instead, which leads to an overall decrease in muscle mass in the long run.


To get the most out of your next workout, prepare by eating foods that will provide the best fuel for your body. Complex carbohydrates like high-protein oatmeal or homemade granola will arm you with plenty of energy to get through your next aerobic routine. Lean protein, like nuts and nut butters, are great for sustaining your system and keeping you full while you work out.

Plan to eat your pre-exercise meal about 90 minutes before engaging in physical activity. If you need a snack closer to your workout time, opt for foods that are light and easy to digest, like fresh fruit, an energy bar, juice, or a smoothie. Having something in your stomach before you hit the gym not only makes your workout more enjoyable, it will also help you build and sustain muscle mass to achieve optimal results.

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