Can Regular Vigorous Exercise Lead to High Potassium Levels?

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A woman is trail running. (Image: blyjak/iStock/Getty Images)

Potassium is an important mineral in your body that is used to perform a variety of biological functions. It is found in foods such as meat, milk, fruits and vegetables, and is needed for adequate fluid balance in your body. It also plays an important role in muscle function and exercise. Studies have found that exercise can increase your blood levels of potassium. However, if you are healthy, your body will promptly regain its potassium balance.

Role of Potassium

Potassium is a mineral and electrolyte, meaning it carries an electrical charge. Potassium is the primary positive ion, or cation, found within your cells and works in a balance with sodium. It regulates water and your acid-base balance, generates the electrical potential that starts the conduction of nerve impulses, helps make proteins and functions in your body's metabolism. Potassium is often measured along with sodium levels to observe your blood pressure. Lower potassium levels can mean higher sodium levels, resulting in a risk of high blood pressure. While low levels can affect your health, high potassium levels are also detrimental.

Potassium and Exercise

Potassium is needed for muscle stimulation and contraction. When measured after exercise, potassium levels are often lower than pre-exercise levels, as your body uses potassium for muscle movement. Severe loss of the electrolyte can lead to cramping and fatigue. Evidence suggests that periods of intense activity increase the amount of potassium in your blood. Research from the 1980s and 1990s found that potassium levels increase during exercise but drop rapidly once the exercise is stopped. In a February 1990 "Journal of Physiology" study, well-conditioned young men participated in one-minute bouts of exhaustive exercise to examine blood potassium fluctuations. Results saw that potassium levels dramatically increased during the given exercise.

Post-exercise Potassium Levels

The same study also found, however, that three minutes after intense exercise, potassium levels dropped below those values measured before exercise. Researchers surmised that the sudden increase in the mineral is due to rapid muscle contraction. Potassium was eliminated by the body quickly and naturally, potentially via the sodium-potassium ion pumps of the exercising muscles.

Conclusions

With increases in exercise intensity, the amount of potassium in your blood should increase. If you are healthy, however, your body should naturally balance itself using its own cellular mechanisms. In other words, intense exercise is not directly linked with chronic high potassium levels. Dysfunctions in your cellular processes, although rare, may lead to complications and a buildup of potassium. If you have hyperkalemia -- high potassium -- or are taking potassium-regulating medications, talk to your doctor before exercising.

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