Iron is an essential metal the body needs to transport oxygen through the blood. When the concentrations of iron drop, you can become anemic. Exercising increases the amount of oxygen your body needs and being iron deficient can interfere with that process. However, you should not take supplemental iron with consulting your doctor first.
Iron’s Role in the Body
Iron serves as a transport for oxygen molecules in the blood stream. The metal binds the molecules to hemoglobin, a component of blood, and allows the oxygen to travel. Without proper oxygenation, the body cannot break down what it needs for fuel. When you exercise, there is an increase in the need for energy. Exercise does reduce the iron levels in the blood, but unless you are an athlete or exercise excessively, the rate should not affect you.
Iron anemia is a common problem in some countries and is one of the most prevalent nutritional deficiencies in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The body cannot produce iron. This means you must get it from food or as a supplement. Certain illnesses, such as kidney disease, might affect the ability to absorb iron from food. Doctors assess the amount of iron in the blood by doing a test to determine hemoglobin rate. Hemoglobin is the element in the blood that carries oxygen. Because iron is necessary to produce hemoglobin, a low level implies insufficient iron. Some colleges and organizations, such as Oregon State University, require athletes to be screened for iron problems when competing.
Athletes can be at some risk for iron deficiency, especially women. This is because of the monthly loss of blood through menstruation. Athletes lose iron when they perspire. For most, this will not be a problem because it takes a lot of exercise to reduce that rate. Besides women, athletes who do marathon running or other forms of endurance sports can become anemic as well. The average person who goes to the gym daily will not lose enough iron through sweat to become deficient.
Taking too much iron is as much of a problem as taking too little. Iron can build up in body tissue and cause damage. For this reason, you should not take supplemental iron unless a doctor recommends it. Groups at higher risk for anemia include teenage girls, infants, pregnant women and those with kidney or intestinal problems. An athlete that tests low for iron may also need to take a supplement or add more iron-rich foods to the diet, such as tuna or beef. If you feel tired or weak and suspect iron deficiency might be the problem, your doctor can test you for anemia.
Is This an Emergency?
- National Institute of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron
- The University of Texas at Austin: Female Athletes and Iron Status
- Ohio University; USA Swimming - Research & CQ: Iron and Performance; 2008
- Oregon State University Athletic Sports Nutrition: Iron Screening Protocol