One of the most common complaints I hear in all of my fitness classes, no matter what the format, from Yoga to Pilates to Water Aerobics to Zumba, is that about half way through class the participant gets terrible foot or leg cramps. This can be a serious enough problem, if it persists, that it drives a person to stop taking a class they might otherwise enjoy or stop exercising all together. What can be done about these cramps? What causes them, and how can they be prevented?
There are a number of things that are likely to cause them, and luckily, many of them are pretty easy to remedy. In some cases when you start a new fitness program or intensify an existing one, you may experience this cramping because the muscle is not used to being asked to work consistently for that length of time. It could be simply a lack of strength and endurance which will go away over time as your condition improves. Muscle cramps can also be caused by fatigue, where the muscle is strong and would normally have the endurance, but in this case has been overworked without enough time to recover. This can also happen when the muscle becomes too tight from too little or improper stretching. Often mineral loss from sweating or the metabolic process in the muscle is to blame for the cramping.
One of the most common causes of cramps during fitness classes is dehydration. Everyone knows that it is important to drink lots of water. Everyone knows that not drinking enough water can result in a myriad of health problems from urinary tract infections to migraines. What you may not know is that you can be mildly dehydrated, to the point of being compromised for sustained physical exertion, without feeling thirsty. In fact, for most people, by the time they feel thirsty enough to do something about it, they are past the point of mild dehydration. If you’re having an issue with cramps during exercise, try increasing your liquid consumption before the class. As an important side note, not just any liquid will do. It needs to be water, something with vitamin and mineral supplements, or at least hydrating properties. The worst choices would be coffee, tea, and soda. Coffee and tea have diuretic properties and will actually cause you to become MORE dehydrated as you drink them. I, personally, LOVE both, but I always drink a glass of water with my coffee or tea because I know every cup I have is leaching the moisture right out of my body and causing me to become more dehydrated than before I had them. Soda also does not hydrate you, in many cases, also stimulates the kidneys, can be very high in sugar that will overload your body, or high in various other additives that are not healthy. Drink water or water with some vitamins added. If you don’t like the taste of water, try adding a little fresh lemon or a sprig of mint to give it flavor without the sugar.
Another common cause of muscle cramping is low potassium. You may lose potassium as you sweat, or you may not be getting enough in your diet in general. Some medications will use up your body’s potassium store, as well. Some of the best sources of potassium are bananas, apricots, most types of beans including soybeans, spinach, pumpkin, carrots, and kale. If your gym has a juice bar where they make their own juice from fresh fruits and vegetables, you can easily get a nice carrot, banana, kale type drink before class. It will have calories, but they should be the kind that are easily accessible for your body to use and burn during class, rather than overloading your bloodstream with sugars which causes it to be instantly stored. When I was working as a professional dancer and stage performer, I used to carry bananas and dried apricots in my bag with me to classes, performances, and rehearsals. It’s the best way to keep your energy up and your muscles functioning. A nice frozen banana tastes like and has a similar mouth feel to ice cream but without all the added sugar. They make a refreshing treat on a hot day, especially during periods of physical activity.
Another common cause of cramping is calcium deficiency. This problem can be common in older women who are not taking a calcium supplement. Also, many common medications cause low blood calcium levels, so if you think this might be an issue for you, consider having a blood test done to see if your calcium levels run low, or are on the borderline. Often the best answer for this issue is to find a good calcium supplement, since if you are calcium deficient from hormone depletion or a medicinal side effect, dietary changes probably will not be enough to correct the problem entirely. However, I am always an advocate of dietary changes for the better. Foods that are rich in calcium include figs, kale, soybeans, dairy (yogurt being one of the best), oatmeal (and many other whole grains), almonds, and apricots.
For the record, a single serving of kale has more protein than a single appropriately sized serving of steak. Yes, it really does! They are not the same amino acid chains, but they are proteins none the less, and if you are vegan or vegetarian and looking to build muscle, eat your kale! Apricots and figs are also great sources of protein and iron. I would recommend these three foods (kale, apricots, and figs) to any fitness enthusiast for their fantastic nutrient content.
These simple dietary shifts will end the cramps for most people. If increasing your water, potassium, and calcium consumption mixed with proper stretching does not solve your cramping issue, then you should speak with your doctor about it to rule out any underlying disease or medical condition. It can be frustrating enough learning new routines or starting up a fitness regime for many people. Don’t let something that is probably an easy fix cramp your style.