The Case for the After-Dinner Constitutional

Who doesn’t love dinner time?  

Dinner is easily one of my top three favorite meals!  

Most of us consume our largest daily meal at dinner, and in particular, our highest fat and protein intake – which are the slowest-to-digest macronutrients. While an adequate daily energy intake is great and necessary, consuming our biggest meal a few hours before lying down to go to sleep isn’t necessarily the best strategy. This is especially true for those of us who suffer from acid reflux and GERD

Enter The Constitutional.

-- A constitutional is a charmingly archaic term for an easy walk taken after a meal. 

I can just picture Sherlock Holmes suggesting he and Dr. Watson takes a constitutional after enjoying their evening meal. The funky name, “constitutional,” derives from the perceived health benefits of walking. The combination of fresh air, exercise, and potential companionship (assuming you have company) was thought to be healthful to both body and mind. The notion dates back to at least 1859, with one of the touted health benefits of walking described as “diminished dyspepsia”, aka indigestion.

Does it Really Work?

To put it mildly, we have made a lot of advances in medicine since the 19th century (fun fact: average life expectancy in the US in 1900 was 47 years - CDC). Does the constitutional hold up under modern scrutiny?

Happily, yes! Research supports that a light bout of exercise after meals can impart several health benefits. These benefits relate to increased blood flow to the viscera, metabolic control, increased total energy expenditure, and increased mood.

The constitutional’s physical effects include increased cardiac output and overall blood flow, including blood flow to the gut.  This can aid digestion, as increased rates of gastric emptying have been observed following post-meal walking. In addition, exercising after a meal can speed up the removal of glucose and triglycerides from the bloodstream. This is healthful, as sustained high levels of glucose and triglycerides relate to an increased risk of heart disease and early mortality. 

Walking does a body good, regardless of whether it is before or after a meal. But developing a routine where you walk after every dinner is a great way to make a habit out of getting some extra steps in. Most of us could benefit from this: the average American walks about 3-4,000 steps per day. Public health recommendations fall closer to 10,000 steps per day, as that level of activity is related to a reduced risk of chronic diseases and all-cause mortality.

Walking is also good for your mind. A single bout of light exercise can improve mood and reduce anxiety. If you can walk in nature, there is some evidence that these mood-improving improvements are magnified in an outdoor environment. 

How much and how hard?

Those are always the questions when it comes to exercise. For the constitutional, I’d recommend that your goal is to keep it intentionally easy. The constitutional should be a joy, not a burden. 

Time commitments should be minimal- walking for as little as 10 minutes has been found to improve mood. As for effort? Don’t worry about it! Just mosey. Stroll. The goal is light movement and reflection.

And you don’t have to call it a constitutional.  That is a weird and awkward term ;) 

  1. Lipp, R. W., Schnedl, W. J., Hammer, H. F., Kotanko, P., Leb, G., & Krejs, G. J. (2000). Effects of postprandial walking on delayed gastric emptying and intragastric meal distribution in longstanding diabetics. The American journal of gastroenterology, 95(2), 419–424. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1572-0241.2000.01761.x 
  2. Chacko E. (2015). Exercising tactically for metabolic control. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 118(8), 1088. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00050.2015 
  3. Lucibello, K. M., Parker, J., & Heisz, J. J. (2019). Examining a training effect on the state anxiety response to an acute bout of exercise in low and high anxious individuals. Journal of affective disorders, 247, 29–35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2018.12.063 
  4. Koselka, E., Weidner, L. C., Minasov, A., Berman, M. G., Leonard, W. R., Santoso, M. V., de Brito, J. N., Pope, Z. C., Pereira, M. A., & Horton, T. H. (2019). Walking Green: Developing an Evidence Base for Nature Prescriptions. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(22), 4338. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16224338 
  5. Edwards, M. K., & Loprinzi, P. D. (2018). Experimental effects of brief, single bouts of walking and meditation on mood profile in young adults. Health promotion perspectives, 8(3), 171–178. https://doi.org/10.15171/hpp.2018.23 

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