Protein power: why we need protein for exercise  

How much protein should we be eating, and what purpose does it serve?

You probably know protein is good for you, and that we all need to include it in our diets, but what does it actually do?  

Protein is one of the macronutrients (macros) that make up our diet and that our bodies need – the other main ones being carbohydrates and fats. These nutrients are needed in larger quantities than micronutrients (like vitamins), hence the term macros. Our bodies can’t make these macros by themselves, so we need to get them from the food we eat.  

raw salmon, raw steak, eggs, nuts, and beansCredit: Shutterstock / Ground Picture
Protein is a vital part of our diet

All the cells in our body are made mainly from protein and it’s a vital part of our diet. Don’t worry though, since most of us eat more than the daily recommended amount – including the vegetarians and vegans among us.  

When talking about protein as a macronutrient, we usually refer to it in terms of a food source. For example, we might say eggs have a lot of protein, but protein is something that is present in all living organisms in varying quantities, and it’s specific to each species.  

Protein is also organ specific, so the protein found in our biceps is different to the protein in our liver. The amount of protein found in each body part differs too. Muscles are made up of around 30% protein, but higher levels of protein are found in bones due to their lower water content.  

Man showing his bicepCredit: Shutterstock / pixelheadphoto digitalskillet
Protein helps maintain muscle mass

The role of protein in the body

What does protein do?

“Protein plays a vital role in almost every part of the body, from hormones, muscle strength and healthy blood cells to helping you feel full after meals,” Dr Clare Bailey, from The Fast 800, tells us.  

Dr Sunni Patel, founder of gut health coaching platform Dish Dash Deets, adds: “Protein is an important foundation for many of the tissues in our body because the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) help in the growth, repair and maintenance of muscle as well as bones and connective tissue.” 

As well as building and repairing cells, protein aids digestion, provides energy, and supports our immune system – and that’s to name but a few of its functions 

Our bodies work in a constant state of repair and renewal, breaking down protein to replenish and maintain tissue. Most of the time, we have all the protein our bodies need to do this, but there are times in our lives when we need extra protein, such as during pregnancy, menopause or illness.  

We also need more protein as we age. “We lose muscle mass and strength at a rate of 3-8% every decade from around the age of 30, which accelerates from around 50 years old,” Patel says. 

“Age-related loss of muscle mass and strength (known as sarcopenia) can impact day to day functioning and abilities.” This is why it’s important to make sure we include plenty of protein in our diet.  

As well as being the building blocks for muscle, protein helps us feel fuller. This can be especially helpful if you want to lose weight. Protein-rich foods help suppress the hunger hormone ghrelin, so we’re less inclined to snack or overeat.  

When planning meals, it’s useful to make vegetables and protein the focus first, before carbohydrates and fats – though these should be included for a balanced plate.  

Man doing squats with a barbellCredit: Shutterstock / Olena Yakobchuk
Protein helps us when it comes to exercising

Why protein is important for exercise

Building muscle

“Your body needs protein to repair and grow muscle that is broken down during exercise,” Patel tells us. This is especially important if you’re exercising regularly, though protein needs vary according to how much exercise you do.  

If you’re just getting started, your regular diet should give you adequate amounts, provided it’s not made up of too much junk food. The NHS Eatwell guide has information on how to make balanced meals.  

High-level athletes follow a very strict, high-protein diet for most of their sporting lives. There is little room for deviation, and they need much more protein than the average person, due to the amount of muscle in their bodies.  

Those of us who are not athletes but who exercise on a consistent and regular basis are probably already getting enough protein, as long as we follow a balanced diet. 

As we age, our bodies take longer to recover from a workout. This, combined with a decrease in muscle mass, means protein is more important than ever.  

We need fuel (food) to power our workouts, whether we are trying to lose weight or not. If you’re restricting calorie intake don’t be too severe. Not only are you less likely to stick to your diet long term, but your body won’t have the energy it needs to work out or recover effectively.  

Long term, this can cause issues with fatigue, and hormonal issues for women, especially if you’re going through the menopause, when lower oestrogen levels can affect muscle mass 

If you’re strength training on a regular basis, you might want to think about how you refuel your body post-workout. The same also applies to those taking part in endurance training or events such as marathon running.  

Spreading your protein intake throughout the day is recommended by the British Nutrition Foundation, and they also suggest eating some protein and carbohydrates within 30 minutes to two hours after finishing a workout, to help restore nutrients you’ve used during exercise.  

It’s worth noting that if you want to increase muscle mass (get stronger), increasing protein alone won’t do it. You need to follow a workout programme that uses progressive overload as its main principle (gradually increasing the weights you lift) and eating a balanced diet.  

Roast chickenCredit: Shutterstock / AnnaStills
Guidelines for protein can vary

How much protein do we need?

Getting the right amount

Guidelines are just that. There’s no hard and fast rule and it’s worth remembering that most of us already eat adequate amounts of protein for our needs. Different websites will offer different recommendations, and keep in mind that some give guidelines based on bodyweight in lbs, others in kgs.  

Current UK guidelines advise that adults should aim for 0.75g of protein per kg of body weight per day.  It’s worth noting, though, that these guidelines don’t take into account how your needs might change as you get older,.  

However, most sources do recommend that it is beneficial to increase our intake as we age beyond that. A 2013 study concluded that people over 65 years old should aim for higher levels of protein in their diet to protect against declining muscle mass.  

“Your weight, health issues, lifestyle and how much you exercise help to determine the amount of protein you should be having on a daily basis,” Patel says. “Age is another factor. Most guidelines recommend that healthy older adults should consume 1-1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight daily.”

As an example, this means that a 60-year-old man weighing 85kg should aim for 85-102g of protein per day, while a 75-year-old woman who weighs 65kg would need around 65-78g.  

Bailey recommends similar: “Because our bodies are unable to store protein, it is important that we get enough on a daily basis. As we get older, we need to eat more protein as the body processes it less efficiently. So older people need closer to 100g of protein a day. But eating more protein beyond that is not helpful.” 

Our bodies will process and use the protein it needs. Beyond that, excess protein will be stored as fat. If you’re sore after workouts, or you’re struggling with energy levels, try adding some more protein to each meal and see if it improves.  

raw steak, raw salmon, protein powder and dried pulsesCredit: Shutterstock / Oleksandra Naumenko
Animal products and pulses are good sources of protein

Food ideas

What to eat

Animal products are very good sources of protein. Aim for lean meat or fish options, such as chicken or turkey, and try to limit red meat consumption. The NHS recommends no more than 70g of red meat per day.  

120g of grilled chicken breast contains nearly 39g of protein, while the same size portion of salmon has 29g. Tinned fish is also packed with protein; a 70g tin of tuna in oil (drained) contains 17g protein.  

For vegetarians or vegans, tofu or tempeh are good alternatives. 100g of firm tofu has 12g of protein, and 100g of tempeh has 20g of protein.  

Dairy products are good choices, especially for breakfast in place of cereal. One large egg has 6g of protein, so eggs on toast would be a great choice for a post-workout meal. Similarly, Greek yogurt (5g of protein per 100g) with fruit is a good option.  

Beans, grains, and nuts are plant-based alternatives that have a surprising amount of protein in them. For example, almonds contain 6g of protein per serving, while baked beans have 10g per 200g serving.  

All in all, it’s easy to make sure every meal contains at least some protein in it since there’s so many options to choose from. Balance your plate with plenty of fruit or veg and some healthy carbs, be mindful of portion sizes and you’ll smash those protein goals with ease.  

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her


Becky Fuller is a Staff Writer for Fitness at Exceptional. Becky is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky is passionate about Kettlebell training, and runs a regular kettlebell club in the local community. Prior to this, she worked as a Fitness manager in a local gym. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain.

Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

Away from work, Becky unsurprisingly enjoys exercise, with a focus on lifting weights, kettlebells, and Olympic rings. She loves watching theatre, swimming, and reading a good book. She has three teenage children and enjoys spending time with them, preferably on a Cornish beach.

  • twitter
  • instagram
  • Email