Adding cocoa powder to your smoothie before exercise can do more than satisfy your chocolate cravings, according to a study in European Journal of Applied Physiology. Researchers suggest that it may help increase blood flow, which not only reduces the risk of blood clots but can also increase exercise performance.
This is because there is a bioactive compound in cocoa powder – and dark chocolate, but to a lesser extent – called cocoa flavanols that contribute to better oxygen uptake and blood flow into the muscles, according to lead researcher Simon Marwood, Ph.D., associate professor of sports science at Liverpool Hope University in the United Kingdom
Being able to improve oxygen uptake provides benefits such as greater strength and less fatigue during exercise, he says, as well as better recovery from high-intensity exercise and more efficient utilization of fats and carbohydrates.
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The most recent study included 17 middle-aged participants who received either 400 milligrams of cocoa flavanols or placebo for seven days. At the end of that week, they performed a series of moderate and high-intensity exercise tests to assess how well their bodies used oxygen during exercise.
Those in the flavanols group showed a significantly faster increase in oxygen consumption, which meant that they could tolerate exercise better – and tended to enjoy their workouts as well, says Marwood. Although the sample was small, he says that the results are remarkable and can form the basis for further research.
“Previous studies have shown that lowering the rate of oxygen consumption causes you to get tired earlier during exercise, which is limiting,” he says. “This study is encouraging because it shows that a simple change such as having some cocoa flavanols can give a boost.”
Previous research also provides another reason to consider adding flavanols to your drink: better blood pressure during stress. A study in Nutrients found that participants who had a cocoa drink when they felt stressed had better blood vessel function than those who did not.
Although there are flavanols in dark chocolate, Marwood says that these results do not mean that you should charge chocolate cakes as a blood flow enhancer because chocolate contains sugar and fat – however cocoa flavanol supplements, which are available in powder form, usually do not have those ingredients.
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