Could chocolate be the secret to fitness success?

We’re used to thinking of chocolate as the thing we need to work off at the gym – but could it actually be the secret to fitness success?

According to a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, chocolate contains a compound called flavanol which improves oxygen uptake and can make moderate intensity exercise easier.

The study was conducted on 17 healthy middle-aged adults who were given cocoa-flavanol supplements for seven days. After taking the supplements, the participants cycled at a medium intensity level, followed by a severe intensity cycle.

The results found that the participants’ bodies were able to use more oxygen during the workout (called their Vo2 max) at a medium intensity level, but not at a severe intensity level. In fact, their oxygen uptake after moderate intensity exercise reached levels similar to those often seen in younger individuals.

So, what does this mean for your workout? Here are three important insights from the research from Fitness Superstore.

1) You need to find the best ‘chocolate’ workout

As the results of the study showed effects only at a moderate intensity, it seems chocolate is a good pre-workout snack for most everyday fitness routines. Whether you’re heading out for a brisk walk, a bike ride through your neighbourhood, or a tennis match with friends, chocolate could be the secret to your fitness success.

For more rigorous exercise, such as weightlifting, HIIT, or running, you may not feel the benefits of cocoa. Instead, look for a light snack rich in carbohydrates and protein, such as oats, yoghurt, or fruit.

2) Your age matters (and it’s good news if you are middle-aged)

It’s worth bearing in mind that the original study was conducted on participants aged 40–60 and the scientists highlight that these results may only be relevant to this age group. However, as your cardio fitness reduces as you get older – by around 10% per decade according to a study in Sports Medicine – chocolate could make daily exercise easier for middle-aged adults. 

That’s less great news if you aren’t yet middle-aged, but gives you something to look forward to once you get there!

3) You have to eat the right chocolate

Of course, not all chocolate is created equal. While the flavanol content of chocolate depends on processing methods, some chocolates are more likely to contain a higher percentage. According to a study published in the journal Molecules, around 54% of phenolic compounds in dark chocolate are flavonoids but the addition of milk and sugar in milk chocolate reduces it to just 18%.

So, if you’re looking for the perfect pre-workout snack, reach for a high cocoa, low sugar option that’s at least 60% cocoa solids. Just one or two squares should be enough to reap all the benefits without overindulging.

Other foods that contain flavonoids include leafy vegetables, onions, soybeans, apples, berries, cherries, and citrus fruits (National Library of Medicine). These foods are also rich in other vitamins and minerals, making them a great, healthy snack for any time of day.

Two pre-workout chocolate recipes

If you’re looking for the perfect way to add some chocolate to your workout routine, why not make one of these tasty recipes?

Cocoa energy balls

For a boost of energy before your workout, try making these cocoa protein balls. Simply mix together one cup of rolled oats, a quarter cup of chopped dark chocolate, half a cup of peanut butter, and a touch of honey or vanilla essence for sweetness. Use an ice cream scoop to spoon the mixture into even pieces and roll each one into a ball. Cover and refrigerate them for at least half an hour.

These are especially helpful for giving you a hit of energy before starting your fitness routine. Not only will you benefit from the cocoa, but the protein-rich peanut butter and carbohydrates in the oats will help sustain you through your workout. You can also choose to add a scoop of chocolate protein powder or some chia seeds for an extra boost.

Cocoa protein shake

If a pre-workout shake is more your style, why not add a cocoa supplement? Just blend a tablespoon of cocoa powder with a banana, six ice cubes, and a tablespoon of peanut butter. You can also add a touch of vanilla essence if you like. Blend and enjoy before you head out for your workout.

Dark chocolate could be your secret workout weapon

According to Keoghan Bellew, Personal Trainer at Fitness Superstore, working out can be a bit tougher as you get older, but dark chocolate could very well be your secret weapon! Improved oxygen uptake means more oxygen can go to your muscles as you’re exercising, allowing you to work your muscles just that little bit harder.

The results of this study show that cocoa just before exercising can help middle-aged adults tolerate slightly longer and harder workouts. And the more exercise you do, the more you’ll naturally improve your body’s Vo2 max.

So, if you’re looking to improve your fitness this spring, a square or two of dark chocolate before you head out could be the key to a successful session. And while a milk or white chocolate egg won’t help you reach your fitness goals, a little Easter treat now and then certainly won’t hurt either.

Photo by Tamas Pap