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Can Exercising Affect Anemia?

author image Trisha McNary
A lifetime weightlifting and abs workout enthusiast living in eastern Washington, Marsha Wyatt is a technical editor and writer specializing in health and fitness topics including weight training and fitness and diet programs for longevity.
Can Exercising Affect Anemia?
Intense exercise without a healthy diet can cause sports anemia. Photo Credit JGI/Tom Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images

Cardio exercise not only burns fat and carbohydrates but also puts a demand on your body’s iron stores. With a diet that includes enough iron to fuel your exercise, this is not a problem. However, exercising with a diet that doesn’t provide enough iron can lead to what is called "sports anemia," which results in lowered red blood cell count. Anemia can be prevented by adding iron-rich food to your diet and monitoring your iron level with yearly physicals.

Exercise Affects Red Blood Cells

Endurance training exercises like swimming, running and bicycling increase your body’s demand for oxygen. Red blood cells -- the transporters of oxygen to the muscles -- are damaged and destroyed at an increased rate with long-term exercise compared to when your body is at rest, according to Sports Med. If new red blood cells are produced equal to the number of red blood cells destroyed, there is no decrease in athletic performance. Working muscles benefit by the faster death of old red blood cells and rebirth of new cells because younger cells are more efficient at carrying oxygen.

Who Is At Risk

Although red blood cell count deficiency is rare in athletes, people who exercise vigorously need up to 30 percent more daily iron than non-exercisers, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. Because of their monthly period blood loss, young female athletes have the highest risk of anemia of any group of people. Heavier-than-normal periods, kidney problems and vitamin A deficiency can also lead to anemia. Other athletes who are at risk of sports anemia are distance runners and vegetarians. Healthy adult men and postmenopausal women have the least risk.

Signs of Sports Anemia

Some of the signs of sports anemia are shortness or breath, chest pain, headaches and leg pain. Long-term iron deficiency can cause sores at the corners of the mouth, a burning tongue and cravings for non-foods like chalk or clay. These symptoms, as well as exhaustion, paleness and dizziness could be caused by anemia or by another serious illness. See your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, but do not attempt to self-treat anemia because too much iron can be harmful.

Diet to Prevent Anemia

Adding iron-rich foods to your diet is a safe and healthy way to prevent sports anemia. Meats that contain high amounts of iron are red meat, fish and poultry. Iron from meat sources is the easiest for your body to absorb. Vegetarians can get iron from beans, lentils, spinach and other leafy green vegetables. If you are getting most of your iron from non-meat sources, be aware that black tea, calcium, whole grains and some soybean proteins will reduce its absorption. Add vitamin C-containing foods like oranges and tomatoes to your diet to increase your absorption of iron from plant foods.

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