Iron levels and physical activity
By Dr Rachel McCormick, Accredited Exercise Physiologist.
Often described as a “silent epidemic”, many symptoms of low iron intake are overlooked as day-to-day tiredness.
If you have been diagnosed with low iron before, you will recognise the feeling of fatigue. But how does exercise fit in? Let’s explore what iron is and how exercise impacts your iron levels.
What is iron and iron deficiency?
Iron is an essential dietary mineral that is involved in many aspects of our body, including transporting oxygen. It’s something that is easy to ignore until it’s missing (or we become deficient).
Our bodies are unable to produce iron, meaning dietary intake is essential to counter the daily losses and ensure a healthy iron balance. While it sounds easy, replenishing our iron can be challenging because our body only absorbs 2-35% of the iron from food (depending on the source). It is recommended that adult males consume 8mg of iron per day, and women who have not experienced menopause should aim to consume 18mg (to account for menstruation) (1).
If we do not consume enough iron, it results in a negative iron balance. At first, this will cause our body to use its iron stores, but over time these stores will become depleted and iron deficiency will occur. Due to the role of iron in oxygen transport and energy production, it makes sense that an iron deficiency leads to feelings of fatigue, as well as poor memory or concentration.
Who is at risk of iron deficiency?
Beyond the low risk that everyone is subject to, there is a higher risk of deficiency for individuals who menstruate as well as those who follow restrictive dietary patterns. A reason for this is the additional iron lost during menstruation, as well as varied iron amounts in different food types.
Avid exercisers can also be particularly vulnerable to iron deficiency, but that’s no reason to skip your workout!
How can exercise impact iron levels?
Iron is very important to our ability to exercise due to its role in oxygen transport and energy production. Iron can be lost through exertion, including avenues such as sweating and weight-bearing activity (2). This can be made worse by the challenge to replenish lost iron stores via dietary iron when absorption is low.
What do I do if I think I have low iron?
If you are unsure if you have low iron levels, it is recommended to visit your local GP and get a blood test, as the symptoms of iron deficiency are similar to a variety of other conditions.
They will also be able to recommend a treatment plan that best meets your healthcare needs. If you wish to start (or continue) exercising when you have low iron, see an Accredited Exercise Physiologist. They will be able to manage your training load, help set realistic goals, and progress your workouts safely and effectively.
You may also be interested in our article What foods should I to eat to avoid fatigue?
- Winter WE, Bazydlo LA, Harris NS. The Molecular Biology of Human Iron Metabolism. LAB MED. 2014:45(2):92-102. Doi: 10.1309/LMF28S2GIMXNWHMM
- Skarpanska-Stejnborn A, Basta P, Trzeciak J, Szczesniak-Pilaczynska L. Effect of intense physical exercise on hepcidin levels and selected parameters of iron metabolism in rowing athletes. Eur J Appl Phyiol. 2015:115(2):345-351. Doi:10.1007/s00421-014-3018-3
Last updated: June 28, 2023 at: 2:12 pm