Anemia & Exercise
Anemia, also sometimes known as low iron, comes in various forms and has various causes. The iron molecule helps your red blood cells carry life-giving oxygen around your body. Without iron-carrying red blood cells circulating through our blood stream, our bodies die from lack of oxygen. Anemia due to iron deficiency can happen quickly, such as from rapid blood loss, or can happen gradually from losses, such as those with a menstrual period, from a slow loss within the bladder, or gastrointestinal tract.
We can also become anemic if our bodies do not make enough red blood cells due to inadequate intake of dietary iron or vitamin B12 or due to chronic issues with a poorly functioning bone marrow, which is where red blood cells are made. Exercise can sometimes increase the body’s need for iron and B12 due to increase use by our muscles. Some types of anemia pose greater health problems than others, depending on why and how quickly anemia occurs.
Symptoms of Anemia
- Feeling tired or lack of energy
- Higher heart rate – especially with exercise
- Shortness of breath
- Poor endurance and stamina
- Pale skin
- Leg cramps
- Insomnia/poor concentration
Exercising With Anemia
Women tend to be at a higher risk of developing anemia because of events such as heavy periods and pregnancy. Female athletes who engage in intense exercise on a regular basis are also at an increased risk of becoming anemic. However, aerobic exercises, such as swimming, running and biking, can help anemic women better deal with the condition.
The good news is that aerobic exercise allows for red blood cells to be delivered more efficiently to muscle tissue, but also causes an overall decrease in hemoglobin due to the dilution of red blood cells in plasma. The key to exercising with anemia is to find appropriate exercises that don’t drain you of all your energy but still provide aerobic and anaerobic benefits. Keep in mind, however, that if you are anemic, you should speak with your doctor about whether it is safe to exercise and if not when.
Exercise requires your body to use extra oxygen for the cells to work properly. If you are anemic when you exercise, you may develop lactic acidosis (when lactic acid builds ups in the bloodstream faster than it can be removed) and fatigue quickly, feel lethargic and feel a decrease in endurance. In addition, your recovery time may be longer and you will have more muscle stiffness that you would otherwise expect.
Foods To Improve Iron Levels
If you are diagnosed with anemia, there are some things you can do to quickly recover and be back in top shape for your workout. Foods such as spinach, eggs, soybeans, mussels, clams, oysters, beef and pork liver, and lentils are good foods sources of iron and sometimes B12. Adding a source of vitamin C, such as a citrus fruit, at the time of your iron-enriched meal, can enhance the absorption of iron into your system.
Working With Your Doctor To Balance Anemia and Exercise
There are some supplements available over the counter to increase your iron levels, but it’s always a good idea to ask your doctor what’s best for you. Blood tests may be needed to determine the type of anemia you have. Other testing may be needed to determine if you are losing blood from somewhere in your body, or just not making enough – another reason to see your doctor to be sure. You may need to expect some follow up blood tests to be done to determine if your treatment plan has been successful, then you can get back to exercising full steam ahead!
Regular exercise can play a vital role in dealing with anemia and encourages a long and healthy life. Speak with your doctor about what type of exercise program you should take up if you have anemia.
Happy New Year and here’s to the best of your health!
Elizabeth Salada, MD MPH
Internal Medicine and Wellness