As the benefits of red light therapy become more widely known, phototherapy seems to be popping up in more and more places. Even some gyms, like Planet Fitness, have installed full-body red light therapy booths for patrons to use.
But what’s the best way to use such a membership perk? And is it better to use red light therapy before or after a workout?
What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, uses specific wavelengths of light to trigger specific responses in the body. Depending on the purpose and type of light used, light therapy may kill cancerous cells, encourage healing and regeneration, or promote renewed energy.
Light therapy has applications in treating seasonal affective disorder (SAD), acne, and other skin conditions, just to name a few. Scientists continue to study the potential of light therapy to address many other health concerns as well, including muscle recovery and weight loss.
Cells absorb red light wavelengths, specifically, and use it to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy source of cells. This results in cells operating more efficiently and performing tasks such as healing from intense muscle work more quickly. Red light therapy has also been shown to increase blood flow, reduce inflammation, and decrease pain.
What Science Has To Say About Red Light Therapy and Exercise
With all of red light therapy’s benefits for expedited healing and pain management, what does science have to say about its possible applications for exercise?
One small study randomly assigned 30 postmenopausal women to three different groups. One group exercised on a treadmill with infrared light-emitting diode (LED) phototherapy, the second group exercised on a treadmill without light therapy, and the control group did not exercise or receive light therapy.
The women in the exercise groups trained twice a week for six months, exerting themselves to about 85–90% of their maximal heart rates. The LED group showed significantly higher power and total work in their quadriceps during exercise than both other groups. They also experienced significantly less fatigue.
Another study split several young men who were clinically healthy into two groups. One group was treated with low-level light therapy (LLLT) and the other with a sham treatment, and both performed a set of knee training exercises. Researchers applied LLLT to the quadriceps during rest intervals and after the last exercise set.
Both groups were assessed before, during, and at the end of the study. Researchers concluded that light therapy provided the light therapy recipients with greater muscle fatigue resistance.
Finally, while exercise is great for your health, it can also produce oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. Another study suggests that light therapy can decrease oxidative stress and inflammation, which could leave your body with all the benefits of exercise without these drawbacks.
Should You Use Red Light Therapy Before or After a Workout?
If you’re convinced that red light therapy would be a great addition to your fitness routine, you may find yourself wondering whether you should take advantage of your gym’s red light therapy before or after your workout.
Red Light Therapy Before a Workout
Perhaps you’d like to relax with some red light therapy while you’re gearing up for a workout. Science is on your side.
A meta-analysis of 13 years of data showed that light therapy with red and infrared wavelengths applied before exercise improved muscular performance and accelerated recovery. Another study showed higher peak torque measurements and reduced fatigue for groups that received light therapy before a workout.
Yet another study analyzed red light therapy on professional volleyball players performing voluntary biceps contractions. The players who received red light therapy prior to their second exercise session were able to perform significantly more repetitions than the placebo group. Researchers concluded that LLLT delayed the onset of muscle fatigue.
Red Light Therapy After a Workout
If, on the other hand, you’d rather get moving and use red light therapy after a workout, research has your back on that as well.
Red light therapy and near-infrared (NIR) light therapy are well known to stimulate quicker healing, reduce inflammation, and relieve pain. Additionally, a small study in identical twins showed that light therapy after exercise can reduce muscle damage, pain, and atrophy and increase muscle mass, recovery, and athletic performance. All of these are particularly beneficial effects after a difficult workout.
Red Light Therapy Works Before or After a Workout
Like many things in science and life, the question of whether to use red light therapy before or after a workout doesn’t have a straightforward answer. In fact, the best answer is probably, “whenever you can fit it in!” Your plan should conform to your life, fitness goals, and time constraints.
If you’re looking for optimal results in the gym, using red light therapy before workouts may support your goals better. If you’re looking to visit the gym several days in a row, consider red light therapy after your workouts to expedite recovery.
If you can manage to use red light therapy both before and after a workout — within the parameters outlined by the specific device — you could reap the benefits of both. However, there are currently no conclusive studies that examine the use of red light therapy both before and after a workout.