6 tips for exercising with anaemia

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It is a misconception that you can’t exercise or play sport with anaemia. Here are ways to safely incorporate exercise in your lifestyle if you suffer from anaemia.

Lower levels of oxygen in your body caused by anaemia can make exercise more challenging, which has led to the mistaken belief that you shouldn’t do any physical exercise if you’re anaemic.

Another misconception is that professional athletes don’t suffer from anaemia. Recent studies have, however, found that many athletes have iron-deficiency anaemia because of a lack of iron in their diets.

Many ways of losing iron

A previous Health24 article explains that iron deficiency can be a risk for professional athletes. This especially applies to those who partake in endurance events such as long distance running, says Dr Jerry Spivak, a haematologist and Professor of Medicine and Oncology at Johns Hopkins University.

“The classic example is long distance runners, who often suffer from something called ‘foot strike haemolysis’, which is the destruction of red blood cells in the feet due to constant impact,” he said.

Athletes can also lose iron through sweat, or by tiny bleeds through the digestive tract. Women may be more prone to anaemia due to menstruation.

Others who suffer from anaemia may want to start an exercise regime for the health benefits it offers. One of the benefits of aerobic exercise to people with anaemia is that it may help deliver oxygen to the body.

Exercising with anaemia doesn’t have to be that hard, especially if you can find activities that don’t drain all your energy.

Here are tips on how to exercise safely if you are anaemic or have an iron deficiency:

1. Know your body

Know when you are taking strain by monitoring your heartbeat during rest and exercise. A rapid, increasing heartbeat could be a sign that you’re struggling and that you should rest.

Understand your fitness levels and what abnormal fatigue feels like to you – and recognise when you should be taking a break. If an anaemic athlete starts experiencing chest pains, difficulty breathing or an abnormal heartbeat, they should consult their doctor before continuing exercising. 

2. Start slowly and keep it short at first

You shouldn’t rush into distance running or high intensity workouts. Start slowly by incorporating walks and yoga into your exercise regime and build it up according to your capability.

3. Talk to your doctor first

No exercise regime should be started without medical advice if you have a pre-existing medical condition. Discuss your workout strategy with your doctor and adhere to the treatment plan you are prescribed. You should consult your doctor if your level of fatigue is unusual, or if you experience any adverse symptoms.

4. Schedule accordingly

Exercise at those times during the day when you have the most energy – this will differ from person to person. By exercising when your energy levels peak, your oxygen levels will be at their highest and you will not experience fatigue so quickly.

5. Keep recovery in mind too

When you are anaemic, you may develop lactic acidosis, a condition where lactic acid builds up in the bloodstream more quickly than it can be removed. Lactic acid in the bloodstream is known to cause muscle fatigue and soreness. Keep in mind that you won’t bounce back and recover from a workout as quickly as people without anaemia and that muscle stiffness may last longer. Schedule your workouts so that you can take proper rest days in between to get rid of lactic acid build-up.

6. Food for thought

Adjusting your diet can benefit your exercise regime if you suffer from iron deficiency anaemia. Include good sources of iron and vitamin B12, such as spinach, eggs, oysters, beef, pork and lentils, in your diet. Vitamin C (found in a variety of fruits) eaten with an iron-rich meal will help with the absorption of iron. You can also consider taking an iron supplement if you plan to incorporate exercise in your lifestyle.

Image credit: iStock


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