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Herbs for Energy

Plants to improve athletic performance

| July/August 1997

  • During a low-impact aerobic workout, it takes women 17 minutes and men 14 minutes to burn 100 calories. It takes women 13 minutes and men 11 minutes to burn 100 calories an hour during a high-impact aerobic workout.
  • When you bicycle outdoors, you burn between 170 and 800 calories an hour. If you exercise on a stationary bicycle, you burn between 85 and 800 calories an hour.
  • Khat (also known as Cat or Qat) consists of the leaves and tender shoots and twigs of the shrub Catha edulis. Manic behavior and Parkinson’s-like side effects have been associated with khat use.
    Photograph by Steven Foster
  • Some research shows that ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is effective at combatting fatigue.
    Photograph by Steven Foster
  • An herbal product containing willow (Salix spp.) ephedra, and guarana or kola nut has not been proven to be an effective combination for weight loss.
    Photograph by Steven Foster
  • Schisandra (Schizandra chinensis) is an adaptogenic herb. In one study, it improved speed and recovery time in racehorses.
    Photograph by Steven Foster
  • Playing golf without a cart burns between 115 and 400 calories an hour.
  • Running at a speed of 5 miles per hour (a 12-minute mile) burns 460 calories an hour; running at a speed of 7 miles per hour (a 9-minute mile) burns about 690 calories an hour.

In my work as a nutrition consultant, I see people with wide-ranging ­approaches to exercise, including those who walk for relaxation and those who play professional sports for a living. As for myself, I’m serious about my workouts, which include days of super-slow weight lifting and long Sunday bicycle rides. No matter the exercise level, though, all of us have at least one thing in common: we want more energy in order to feel and perform better in both work and play.

Herbal energizers have a lot to offer, but an understanding of how they work is required for safe and effective use. These herbs generally fall into one of two categories—stimulants or adaptogens, also known as tonics.

Stimulants excite the body by increasing heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure, and may increase the rate of muscle fiber contractions. Herbal stimulants include ephedra, coca, and licorice. Adaptogens, including members of the ginseng family, act in nonspecific ways to increase the body’s resistance to physical stress.

Most experts agree on the effects of stimulants, but skeptics often label adaptogens worthless because many of them haven’t been tested under the rigors of Western science. Nevertheless, experience in other countries shows that adaptogens are worth considering if you want to improve your athletic performance.

Potent drugs

Stimulating herbs typically contain alkaloids, powerful chemical compounds that contain nitrogen and are found most often in plants. Alkaloids have pronounced effects—like those of morphine or codeine—on the central nervous system and they can dramatically increase heart and breathing rates as well as blood pressure. Although they can improve your performance in an isolated race or event, stimulant herbs are unlikely to help if they’re used regularly. More importantly, if they are chronically used or abused, they can seriously injure or kill.

Caffeine is the best-known stimulating alkaloid. It is found in coffee, tea, cola, and herbs such as guarana and kola nut. Daily consumption of such products leads to caffeine habituation, which makes the effect it has on the body fairly moderate. For those who drink coffee regularly, for example, sipping a cup of coffee before a race isn’t going to give you an energy boost or improve your performance. However, if you never drink coffee except right before a race, caffeine can significantly impact your performance for that race only.

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