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Could Cocoa Boost Your Exercise Motivation?

Cocoa powder

Key Takeaways

  • Cocoa powder may improve blood flow and increase exercise performance, a recent study suggests.
  • This effect has the potential for boosting exercise tolerance, possibly helping people feel more motivated, the researchers noted.
  • The compound responsible, flavanols, has been touted before for other health benefits and is found in some other foods as well.

For people struggling to get through a workout, the answer may lie in cocoa powder. Using cocoa powder as an ingredient for a pre-workout drink may help to increase exercise performance, thanks to a bioactive compound that improves blood flow, according to a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.

The compound, called cocoa flavanols, has been shown in previous research to increase blood flow to muscles and contribute to better oxygen uptake, thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

These effects could potentially boost exercise tolerance and shorten recovery times, which means you don’t tire as quickly and you bounce back faster, according to study co-author Simon Marwood, PhD, associate professor in sports science at Liverpool Hope University in the U.K.

“Previous studies suggest that when the rate of oxygen consumption is slower, you may feel fatigued sooner, and that can affect motivation,” says Dr. Marwood. “Our research is encouraging because it shows that a simple change, such as putting cocoa flavanols into your diet, could have an effect.”

About the Study

In the study, 17 middle-aged participants received either 400 mg of cocoa flavanols or a placebo for 7 days. At the end of that week, they completed a series of moderate- and high-intensity exercise tests to assess how well their bodies utilized oxygen during exercise.

Simon Marwood, PhD

Cocoa flavanols supplementation could be really encouraging for this age group, and could lead to more physical activity in general.

— Simon Marwood, PhD

Those in the flavanols group showed significantly better and more efficient oxygen usage during moderate-intensity exercise, and they also reported enjoying the exercise more than those who didn’t have the flavanols, Dr. Marwood says.

Although more research is needed with a larger number of participants, the results are promising in terms of potentially making exercise more enjoyable. This fact, in turn, might reduce sedentary behavior.

These findings could be particularly important for middle-aged and older people because being sedentary tends to slow the rate of oxygen consumption when they just start exercising, Dr. Marwood adds. This fact could cause people to lose motivation and give up.

“Cocoa flavanols supplementation could be really encouraging for this age group, and could lead to more physical activity in general,” he says.

Power of Cocoa

Flavanols are a type of plant nutrient found in other foods and beverages like green tea, red wine, cherries, blackberries, and apples. They’re also particularly high in cacao beans—which are dried and roasted to create a cocoa powder.

Previous research has highlighted cocoa flavanols and their effect on blood flow before. For example, a study in Nutrients on young adults found those who had a cocoa drink when feeling acute stress had better blood vessel function than those who didn’t.

Another study, in Nature, suggests flavanol-rich diets could protect against cognitive aging due to their beneficial effect on the body’s vascular system. Flavanols have also been associated with:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved blood flow to the brain
  • Lower risk of blood clots
  • Less cell damage from aging

What About Chocolate?

The good news is that the flavanols remain when cocoa powder is made into chocolate, and with dark chocolate especially. But it’s in a lower amount than unsweetened cocoa powder. Plus, loading up on chocolate bars isn’t the best approach says Daniel Sadler, PhD, of Liverpool John Moores’ School of Sport and Exercise, and the study's lead author.

Daniel Sadler, PhD

Supplements tend to be a better strategy because you can get higher doses of cocoa flavanols without the fat and sugar that come with chocolate, even dark chocolate.

— Daniel Sadler, PhD

“Supplements tend to be a better strategy because you can get higher doses of cocoa flavanols without the fat and sugar that come with chocolate, even dark chocolate,” Dr. Sadler says. “Those elements may negate the potential benefits of any bioactive compounds.”

That means it’s also helpful to check labels on any cocoa powder you’re planning to add to your pre-workout drink or meal. This way, you can make sure you’re not getting added sugars that might minimize their effect.

What This Means For You

Cocoa powder is rich in a particularly potent bioactive compound, flavanols, that have been linked to numerous health benefits like improved blood flow and lower inflammation. A recent study suggests these effects could help exercise performance, which may provide a motivation boost. If you're struggling with motivation to exercise, talk to a healthcare provider about adding cocoa to a pre-workout drink to increase your performance.

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