Workout Leaving You Light-Headed? It’s perfectly normal. And you could die.

by Charlotte on March 21, 2012 · 45 comments

Gym Buddy Allison and I share many similarities: young children, a deep love of garage sales and thrift stores, and the same dark hair/light skin that always makes people ask us if we are sisters. Or just confuse one of us for the other. (Hint: she’s the taller one with whiter teeth and shiny hair – basically what would happen if the Old Spice Guy knocked up the Pantene lady.) Recently we discovered we also share something else, albeit a mite more disconcerting than our preoccupation with our body fat percentage: We faint.

That’s right, a condition normally associated with overly sensitive (or just overly corsetted) 19th-century rich ladies is felling super healthy Gym Buddies left and right. And it’s not just fainting but general light-headedness, dizziness and blacked out vision. Researchers say this phenomenon is perfectly normal. And it will kill us. Yipee!

Called Orthostatic Hypotension, it’s a seldom talked about side effect of exercise. While one of the known (great) side effects of exercise is lowered blood pressure, this can turn into a bit of a problem in situations that further lower your blood pressure such as suddenly stopping a vigorous exercise or suddenly changing positions. (I think I’m suddenly seeing a pattern!) And just this week researchers from the University of North Carolina add that another problem is early demise, saying that “People with orthostatic hypotension were 1.34 times more likely to develop heart failure than patients without.” Avid exercisers that already have low blood pressure are at particular risk for orthostatic hypotension. As ehow.com explains,

“Exercise can cause sudden changes in blood pressure. A change of 20 points in your blood pressure can cause you dizziness or even fainting. This happens because for that moment the brain isn’t getting enough blood. Athletes and those who exercise regularly tend to have lower blood pressure and slower heart rate. So a sudden drop of 20 points could easily put an athlete into the realm of low blood pressure.”

I found this out the hard way the other day while kneeling on my floor sorting ultra-adorable girly clothes for the Jelly Bean. (She has a silver tulle tutu! With silver patent-leather mary janes! That she’ll never wear together because she’s two and all about dressing herself in the least matching outfits possible!) I stood up to hang a dress in her closet and all of a sudden I was hot, nauseated and my vision went all black. And next thing I know I’m slumped against the closet door on the floor with Jelly Bean staring at me with the cutest bewildered expression on her little squishy face.

This is not the first time I have experienced something like this. My normal blood pressure is usually around 85 over 50 although it’s been measured lower and my resting heart rate is about 47 beats per minute. Because of this, my predilection to swoon has become a joke with my husband as I have fainted a few times while he’s hugging me – handsome men just have that effect on me, I guess! I’ve also fainted at least twice with each pregnancy. (Pregnancy is another condition that lowers your blood pressure.) But non-preggo, non-hugging fainting is pretty rare for me. More commonly I’m just dizzy, light-headed, nauseated and have spotty vision for a few seconds. It’s remedied by remembering to stand up slowly and steadying myself with a wall or chair for a few seconds until the feeling passes. Except for the rare occasion when I actually hit the floor, these spells are barely noticeable and are not very bothersome to me.

The gym, however, amplifies these – both in intensity and in danger. For instance after doing Tabata sprints around the track with Allison one day, we both reeled to the floor in a strange, slow fall. It seems to have been a combination of working so hard and then stopping so suddenly (we were not going to run even one extra step at that level of exertion, much less take a cool-down lap!) that brought both of us momentarily insensate. Similar to that, while doing my long runs I’m fine but the second I stop running (which of course I do immediately because I’m a “sprint to the finish line” kind of girl) I usually have to sit down for a few seconds on the end of my treadmill and wait for my vision to clear before I can walk to the paper towel dispenser and spritz my ‘mill down with ineffective-yet-mandatory cleaning spray.

So what about you – have you ever fainted? Locked your knees during your choir concert? Forgotten to drink water during gym class in a heat wave? Do you get dizzy etc. upon changing positions or stopping intense exercise? Any other good side effects of healthy living that end up bad?

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

TS March 22, 2012 at 1:14 am

Wow, and I thought I had low bp (90/60). I think it’s just genes, though, because my dad’s side of the family doesn’t do any exercising, and they still have low bp also…and my heart rate is waaaaay higher. I’ve been told that it’s a good excuse to eat more salt…blech…I have a low salt tolerance…I can’t eat restaurant soups *cries* I get dizzy with sudden movement (think getting up from a chair or really heavy exercising) if I’m stupid and forget to eat. That happens way more than I’d like to admit…I should probably set an alarm on my phone, or at least prep snacks…

I’ve had an allergic reaction while exercising. Stomach cramps, red face, red hands, wheezing, the feeling of being itchy all over. Apparently I have food triggered exercise induced anaphylaxis. I eat the food, nothing happens. I exercise, nothing happens. Combine the two, and issues occur. Now I joke that I’m allergic to exercise. Even though it’s only half. There are some people who are literally allergic to it, though, no food trigger required. I’m sooooo glad I’m not them.

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Shalani March 22, 2012 at 3:22 am

Reading this blog make me realize to do some exercise. Thanks for sharing..

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skeptigirl March 22, 2012 at 4:11 am

When I was a teenager I used to faint while menstruating and throw up. Lately I have been a steely vision of steadyness. My blood pressure is a lot higher and the lowest resting heart rate I have had is 55, with out excercise it can be very hugh, like 90. So the lesson here is, don’t wear corsets.

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Patricia March 22, 2012 at 5:16 am

I’ve been prone to fainting since high school. It always happened when I was an alter girl. It would be early Sunday, I’d be in the big robe at the front of the hot church in the middle of summer. Being a teenager, of course I wouldn’t have eaten breakfast. Not a good combination!

Now I get light headed when I get up and down too often. I find gardening can be bad for this. The combination of physical work and frequently going from kneeling to standing often makes me dizzy. It happens when I workout sometimes which scares me because I workout in my home gym with no one around. Usually I take it as a sign that it’s time to stop. Now that I know there is a medical condition associated with it, I’ll make sure I tell my Dr at my next physical!

I also fainted a few times during pregnancy. Once I hit my head really hard on the way down, it was quite scary!

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Naomi/Dragonmamma March 22, 2012 at 6:36 am

I have fairly low blood pressure (about 115/60) but I’ve never fainted. I would get very dizzy when I first started doing somersaults and headstands, but I got used to it when I added them on a regular basis. I do recall that arteries are actually lined with muscle tissue that pumps the blood along; is it possible to strengthen these muscles through inverted positions (headstands, handstands, etc) so that more blood goes to the brain? It sure seems to be the case with me.

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Therese March 22, 2012 at 6:44 am

I have always had a problem with lightheadedness, too, although I don’t think I’ve ever actually fainted. The most frustrating part of this lately is doing Turkish get-ups during my kettlebell classes. I can never finish the full sets because I have to stop and regain my balance after every one, so everybody else is always finished way before I am!

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Dr. J March 22, 2012 at 7:42 am

It is important to stay well-hydrated if we have a tendency for this condition!

I had an experience ONE time with something similar to this, but in my case, probably due to “g-forces!” No, not in my plane, fortunately, but in my super-car! I had finished my workout, including sauna, so I was very dehydrated, and in my deserted neighborhood, I decided to put the pedal to the metal! As I was pressed back into the seat, I could feel myself losing consciousness! I put the car in neutral and pressed on the brake as “hard” as I could, which felt like everything I had (which in reality wasn’t much), and stopped the car as I recovered!

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Raeesa March 22, 2012 at 8:05 am

Oh so many times. It’s fine if I remember to take my time when changing positions, but hilarity ensues when I get a flash of inspiration and jolt up from lying on the couch only to drop to my knees while my husband laughs at me. The first time it happened he freaked out, but now we’re sort of used to it.

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Abby Anderson March 22, 2012 at 9:47 am

LOL this happens to me too… my family is a bunch of idiots.

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Jenn March 22, 2012 at 8:09 am

Interesting! I’m not sure what my blood pressure usually is, other than “good!” as declared by the nurse at the doc’s office… but at roller derby, I tend to get dizzy during the off skates drills. We were doing mountain climbers, jump squats, burpees, etc. And moving from the on the floor exercise to the standing ones, I always have to pause for a few seconds to let the spotty/spinny vision clear up a bit.

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Abby March 22, 2012 at 8:40 am

I definitely get this during workouts. Just momentarily, got to take a sec to stop the room from being all blurry kind of thing, especially when I go from the ground to standing again. Glad to know I’m not alone! I was starting to worry a bit since I’ve never been a fainter. Only time I almost fainted was when I hadn’t eaten all day then slipped and broke my hand. Good times.

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Doug March 22, 2012 at 9:06 am

Oddly enough, this happens to me and my BP is generally on the higher side. It mostly happens on heavy leg days, when I squat down to do something at home afterward and stand back up.

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Heather @ Bake, Run, Live March 22, 2012 at 9:37 am

I will pass out if I have to stand still for any length of time. I also passed out once from hitting my funny bone. I was in school and turned to get a paper from the kid behind me. Hit my funny bone on the desk. It brought tears to me eyes so I kind of ducked my head (the teacher was watching me). Next thing I knew, I woke up on the ground. I had passed out, fallen, and hit my head so hard that I had a seizure. Needless to say, I freaked out the teacher and my classmates.

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Abby Anderson March 22, 2012 at 9:46 am

I have low BP and HR too, my doc said its genetic and to drink twice as much water as caffinated beverages. Yea right. I’ll try. I also took it upon myself to increase my butter and salt intake to prevent the lightheadedness/dizzy spells. I didn’t really notice a change but I’m gonna say it works. In theory.

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Colleenzo March 22, 2012 at 9:49 am

I faint after a hot bath. I usually crawl out of the bathtub and lay down on my bed for a while till the feeling passes. I’ve learned that it’s either bath OR shower, never combined. :)

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Crabby McSlacker March 22, 2012 at 9:58 am

Oooh, creepy! Suppose it’s not exactly helpful for me to say “be careful!” But do, please, as we really don’t want you dead. (Though I suspect you’d still find some way to write awesome blog posts from the beyond).

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osd March 22, 2012 at 10:08 am

I have had this for ever.
It used to be a problem when I cycled everywhere but not as bad if I took a snack with me on longer rides which made me wonder if it was blood sugar related.
What I discovered when I took up skipping rope was, it came on after a skip if I hadn’t eaten something almost straight after.
Eating a banana can stop it in its tracks,the wobbly vision can just begin and then I remember ,eat a banana and it doesn’t get to black out or white out but normalises again .
Peanut butter also seems to work either on toast or straight from the jar.

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Helene @healthyfrenchie March 22, 2012 at 11:04 am

So I am not alone! I am a fainter too… I get dizzy and fainty when I have my period, when it’s too hot, when I exercise too hard etc
And to make things more fun, I also have an inner ear issue that gives me vertigo and lack of balance…
But I am overall healthy, and I can still exercise :) I just keep snack handy for my low blood sugar, and keep an eye out for things to hold on to, or handsome men to catch me :)

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geosomin March 22, 2012 at 11:28 am

I have lower blood pressure, especially when I’m not feeling well. If I stand up too fast of go from biking to weights I have to rest a bit or I get dizzy. I have fainted a few times, usually when I stand up too fast or an not feeling well. I have learned not to “push through it” or I jsut fall down-my mum had heart issues so I try and be nice to myself in case I’ve inherited any strangeness. I find when I go for long hikes or have a lot of activity I need extra water and salt – it helps a lot.

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Heather March 22, 2012 at 11:46 am

This completely describes me. I just figured I was working too hard and was either dehydrated or not breathing enough. Usually, I just sit down with my head between my knees, breathing deeply, and the feeling goes away.

I’m curious to know, though, whether anyone else has trouble speaking after a hard run? After the Monster Dash 10 Mile (my longest run ever), I could barely speak for lack of the ability to get the words out of my mouth (not just panting from my sprint to the finish). After about a minute, I was fine. It was weird and a little scary.

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Nichole February 15, 2013 at 9:11 am

Hi Heather! I know you posted this a long time ago, but I’m just seeing it and I don’t think anyone responded to your speaking question. I get the same way when everything has gone black, I cannot speak very well and I feel confused and cannot process things as well. I am hoping that it’s normal with this type of thing – probably is. I hope since you posted this, that you’ve figured out how to handle it a little better. I’m in the process of trying to work with and around it now. Not fun!

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Jonathan Aluzas March 22, 2012 at 11:54 am

I can’t count the number of times clients have turned milky white during a workout and broken out into cold sweats. Puke will often follow unless I catch it early, sit them down in in the path of a cool breeze and wrap their neck with a cold, wet towel. Generally it happens with deconditioned people, which isn’t a surprise. We’ve had a few people fall like lightning-stricken trees over the years.

But I notice that, even with conditioned clients, it’s not terribly uncommon for people to get light-headed when they’re changing from lying to standing positions quickly and often. I always figured it was a change in blood pressure but never knew there was a name for it!!

I don’t know that hydration plays a role in people getting dizzy as often as it’s a matter of overexertion and the central nervous system freaking out!

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Amanda March 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Almost off-topic, the two-year-old dressing thing is awesome, and universal. My now-nine-year-old’s favorite outfit was a blue and pink tie-dyed t-shirt coupled with red plaid boxer shorts when he was two. So… yeah. Hee :)

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Tami C. March 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm

I faint when I experience intense pain. The worst time was when a calf (aka a baby cow) kicked me right on my funny bone on my elbow. I was out like a light, and I woke up flat on my back staring at the sky. Took me 5 minutes to figure out who I was and where I was. Weird.

My dad and one of my uncles also have had this fainting in reaction to pain happen to them.

Also, when I faint it goes white, not black. I call it “seeing the white light.” Weird x 2.

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Tim March 22, 2012 at 12:10 pm

The relative risk isn’t that informative unless you say how common a condition is. For example, if a condition is so rate that only one in a million people get it, doubling your risk only gives you a risk of one in 500,000.

For heart failure, for women the incidence is quite high (about 70 per 1,000 over the the age of 80) so increasing the risk 1.3-fold will increase your risk from about 7 in 100 to about 10 in 100.

In this study, the confidence intervals on people with no hypertension were quite wide. Confidence intervals give you an idea of how precise the measurement is. In this paper, the risk might be as small as 1.0, or as high as 1.8. This means that there is a chance that there is no change in risk at all (1.0), or that the change risk could be as large as 1.8 (moving your risk from 7 in 100 to 13 in 100).

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Alyssa (azusmom) March 22, 2012 at 4:37 pm

I sometimes get dizzy or lightheaded, but I’ve never fainted.
I did a few shows in which I had to wear a corset. In one I did a lot of running: I don’t think I’ve ever been that out of breathe , lol!

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StoriesAndSweetPotatoes March 22, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I totally have this problem. I get a heat stroke fairly easily as well. I used to faint playing tennis in high school and definitely fainted tons while exercising during my eating disorder. Now that I’m healthy I sometimes still get really light-headed. I always have to remind myself that I’m okay and just drink water, sit down or sometimes stop exercising. I’m just naturally kind of dizzy anyhow..

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Nicole March 22, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Yep, I’m a fainter. I went through a period of a couple of years where I would routinely stand up (from sitting or lying) and have to go right back down very quickly, and lie with my face against the ground for a minute or two until my vision came back. I once nearly passed out on a crowded Subway! I had to make my way out of the train at a random station without being able to see! (My vision had gone black, but I hadn’t quite fainted)

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Laurel March 22, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Wow, a lot of fainters! Me too! Mine stems to both BP and blood sugar. Most recently I did it in the doorway of the grocery store bathroom – worse was in the middle of the DMV when my daughter was getting her drivers license – she was so embarrassed! Usually I know and can prevent it by sitting or lying down.
I can totally see your toddler looking at you! Glad you didn’t injure anything!

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Charmaine March 22, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Western medicine has a way of checking out only the physical body and forgetting about the mind and spirit. It seems that you are concerned about your weight. Maybe a good psychologist could help you with your panic attacks as well as guide you towards understanding your relationship to food.

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rach March 22, 2012 at 11:02 pm

I guess that could be a pretty good answer to why my vision was going black periodically while doing the crazy amount of burpees during training Tues & Thurs this week. Huh.

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Casey Kay March 22, 2012 at 11:58 pm

I used to get dizzy all the time in high school. I even used to kind of do what you mentioned you and Allison did after the Tabata sprints while walking into the kitchen. I never knew it was from low blood pressure. I’m also glad to know I’m not the only one that happens to…well, you know what I mean there.

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Miz March 23, 2012 at 5:15 am

INTERESTING scary and never! :-)

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Amanda March 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Call me silly but I kind of forgot I had this, but I wonder why I felt dizzy and like throwing up after something like 6 sets of burpees at bootcamp. Really one set was enough to get things started.

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Evilcyber March 23, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Something similar has happened to me one time and it was completely my own fault.

Once I hadn’t eaten the entire day and jumped on our stationary bike and to have energy for my session I had two of those dextrose tabs before, dextrose of course is nothing but glucose, directly going into the bloodstream. Anyway, I started my usual HIIT regime and already after the first 10 minutes I felt that my performance won’t be the best, so I went for less RPM. When I finished my unit, my pulse was still above 175 and during the cooldown I started to feel shaky. When I finally got off the bike I trembled and just trying to put on my sweater gave me really bad nausea and led to actual retching. I had to lie down for 15 minutes and take a dextrose tab to get my blood sugar level to normal again.

Of course, before I took the dextrose I had low blood sugar and my body was busy producing glucagon – glycogen was turned into glucose to keep me going. But I spiked up my blood sugar with the dextrose, which stopped the process, my body released insulin and my liver and muscle cells started to think they have to *store* glucose. While I was physically exhausting myself. At the end my blood sugar level had dropped to unknown depths. In essence, I experiened what happens to a diabetic who injects too much insulin and goes into hypoglycaemia.

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Cat March 23, 2012 at 11:01 pm

I have orthostatic hypotension. It’s really fun to have to explain this to people. My father and sister both have it. I have the tendency to hit the dirt after serious exercise, when I have my period, a migraine, haven’t eaten in too long, or not had breaky, or get too hot (out in the sun or with a fever). It’s fun! Generally I just lie down if I feel it coming on, much better than waking up with a bruise the size of a grapefruit on your noggin and emergency personnel swirling about you.

When I was diagnosed I was told to work out a lot (I already was) and eat a butt load of salt all the time, otherwise I would be put on salt pills. I opted for the salty food, since the others can make you swell, and I love salt. My sister was told to gain wait when she was diagnosed, and we are both careful, especially at certain times of the month. I have fainted probably a dozen times in my life, and I find the best thing to do is keep it funny. I can do a mean impression of a fainting goat, let me tell you! Generally, it isn’t a problem. Just avoid those corsets!

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Amy March 24, 2012 at 2:49 am

I suffer low blood pressure all the time. My doctor once told me that the only time he’d seen blood pressure that low, his patient was dead. I’m like you. It doesn’t generally bother me too much unless I stand up too quickly but I definitely notice when I’m lifting heavy in the gym (squats in particular get me) that everything gets black and fuzzy and I feel like throwing up. I never thought it could kill me though!

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Lisa March 24, 2012 at 10:42 pm

I have similar b/p as yours. I work in a library and every time I put books away on a lower shelf and then get up, I have to stop and hang on to the top of the shelf or I feel like keeling over will happen next. I never have actually done that tho, thankfully, just the spotty dizzy stuff.

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Robbyn March 27, 2012 at 3:23 pm

My resting BP is about about 95 over 58, and I have fainted several times in each of my four pregnancies, though generally just get lightheaded upon standing. Funny thing though, after exercising, even though I am winded, I never feel faint. In fact, when my heart is really racing, that feeling kind of disappears. Not sure what that all means.
I was in the hospital for some surgery a few years ago, and during the nightly ritual of the nurse coming in to check BP, I alarmed her so much with my low pressure that she was going to call my doctor in the middle of the night. I had to assure her that it was “normal” for me, the amphibian!

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lyn March 28, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Suggestion:V 8 juice twice a day. Morning and night…….. I am a 57 year old grandma with a paleo/low carb bend. Raised a toe shoe clad ballerina turned marathon running /cross fit instructor. We went through many years of ‘fainting’ as she struggled to keep her weight at 115..max that most males in ballet can hoist….which was fine until she passed 5’11″. She was officially dx with orthastatic hypotension……fainting continued until we met the Nurse with the solution one summer at Governor’s school. V8 juice twice a day……..three if needed….check the electrolytes on the can…….more sodium and potassium than most energy drinks…low sugar……….the fainting resided……she still has to be careful about her blood sugar so she doesn’t go low but good fats and lots of protein help with that. Good luck……..simple soultion…….increase blood volume, naturally. Stay hydrated.

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sWozzAres July 28, 2013 at 11:15 am

It’s called Hypovolemia – decreased blood plasma due to insufficient sodium concentration, this reduces blood volume thereby reducing blood pressure which leads to orthostatic hypertension. It also gives you a headache, makes it difficult to concentrate and can increase your heartrate (tachyardia).

It can be confused with dehydration but you can’t fix it just by drinking water – you need electrolytes especially sodium.

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katie.lynn July 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Suggestions from my doctor inlude: drink water, & add salt to your diet. I’m 19 & have fainted a few times. when I’m on my period its terrible to where I’m dragging myself on the floor instead of walking. the low red blood cell count could be found an issue too. i am anemic and my blood pressure drops too suddenly causing me to faint. In the other hand i have extremely low blood pressure sometimes even when i feel fine(91/46)

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Nichole February 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

I have been trying to figure out my issue for years! I knew that I had low blood pressure, but never understood what was happening during exercise to make it worse. I always thought it would go up and stay up while exercising. I’ve also been diagnosed as hypoglycemic, so I’ve had the luxury of both issues while working out. And it seems to be getting worse with age. I’m about to turn 30, have 2 year old twins and am just getting back to the gym since before I was pregnant. It wasn’t nearly as bad then! Thank you so much for posting this. It will help me be much more prepared for my workouts and learn to take the time to cool down rather than just jumping off.

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