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The Vitamin That Improves Your Fitness

Maybe that’s why they call them Ironman triathlons. If your iron levels are low—even if they're not so low that you’re anemic—your energy levels and endurance will still suffer, concludes a new study from Cornell and the Medical University of South Carolina. Even a small shortage can hurt your performance.

The researchers split 31 female collegiate rowers—roughly half of whom had already tested positive for low iron levels—into two groups. While one group took a daily iron supplement, the other swallowed a placebo.

After 6 weeks, blood lactate levels—a reliable indicator of muscle fatigue—were about 20% lower among the iron supplementers compared to the placebo group. The women in the iron group also recovered from strenuous exercise 9% faster, according to the research. In addition, the rowers who tested lowest for iron at the start of the study decreased their energy expenditure the most during the study period—meaning they burned less energy during workouts while achieving equal or better results, the research shows.

The study authors aren’t sure exactly how low iron leads to fatigue and decreased performance. But it probably has something to do with the role iron plays in transporting oxygen to your muscles via red blood cells, they say.

About 1 in 10 adult women are anemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And roughly 20% of women suffer from low iron levels, studies have shown. Among physically active women, that rate jumps to around 30%, explains study coauthor Diane DellaValle, PhD, RDN, of the Medical University of South Carolina. While fatigue is always the first symptom of an iron deficiency, Dr. DellaValle says women who fall into this “low but not anemic” category may have no noticeable symptoms.

Her advice? All women should have an annual blood test to check for iron. If your doctor says you’re low, DellaValle recommends taking a daily supplement containing 18 mg of iron—about the amount found in most multivitamins, she adds. You can also get iron from foods lik e lentils, tomatoes, dark leafy greens, and red meat, Dr. DellaValle says. You should have your doctor re-test your blood every 2 to 3 months until the problem’s resolved, she advises.

Don’t have a doctor’s appointment coming up soon? Take an iron supplement anyway, DellaValle suggests. If you’re healthy, there really aren’t any risks, she says.
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