Lightheaded During Workouts? When to See a Healthcare Provider

Don't ignore a feeling of lightheadedness when you exercise

Should you be worried if you become lightheaded during workouts? Well, it depends.

Sometimes, you can get lightheaded if you push yourself too hard, primarily if you aren't used to exercising or are not pacing yourself and hydrating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends gradually increasing your exercise time and intensity when you start.

But some serious health issues can cause dizziness or lightheadedness when you physically exert yourself. According to a review published in 2017 by American Family Physician, if you're becoming dizzy even during light exercise, it may be a sign you need to see a healthcare provider.

Dizziness can have a variety of causes. If you feel lightheaded when you work out, here's what you should know about red flags that signal when to seek medical attention.

Exercise Habits

Dizziness may be a sign that you're dehydrated. So, ensure you drink enough water (about eight glasses, according to the CDC) throughout the day. You'll also want to have water on hand during your workout to replace any fluids you sweat out.

Dizziness could also be a sign that you're overdoing it. It's great to challenge yourself in your gym sessions, but it's not wise to go so hard that your head whirls. 

A research article published in 2021 in Cell Metabolism explained that excessive exercise could damage your organs, and dizziness is an early symptom. Try easing off a bit during workouts by either going slower or doing fewer reps.

Diet

If you aren't eating a balanced diet, you might not notice the effects of your diet during your regular activities. But you can become lightheaded when you lift weights or get your heart rate going. 

A 2020 review published in Nutrients explained that people could experience various symptoms, including dizziness and lightheadedness, due to inadequate calorie intake before exercise.

According to the researchers, low blood sugar is one of the possible effects. Exercise uses a lot of energy, and if you haven't appropriately eaten beforehand, you may feel dizzy.

Medical Conditions

According to the 2017 American Family Physician review, many issues can cause lightheadedness, including: 

  • Low blood pressure
  • Diabetes 
  • Migraine
  • Brain tumors
  • Certain medications
  • Heart, lung, and inner ear disease

Here's what you should know about some of the most common health conditions that may be the root of dizziness or lightheadedness while exercising. 

Diabetes

Diabetes causes high blood sugar. You can regulate your blood sugar with diet and medicines like insulin.

When you have diabetes, exercise can cause low blood sugar, especially if you haven't adjusted your diet or medication before exercising, per the 2017 American Family Physician review.

If you have diabetes, talk to a healthcare provider about managing your blood sugar when exercising.

Balance Disorders

Conditions that cause balance problems can cause lightheadedness associated with exercise, per a review published in 2022 in the Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy. Those conditions may include inner ear disorders, stroke, or Parkinson's disease.

Those conditions can cause worsening symptoms, increasing your risk of falling while exercising. Treatment can help alleviate symptoms, and a physical therapist can teach you how to exercise safely.

Lung Disease

Feeling like your head is spinning at the gym can be related to lung disease, according to a review published in 2021 in the Lancet. One possible cause is exercise-induced asthma, which causes shortness of breath or chest tightness. 

Consider making an appointment to see a healthcare provider who can determine whether exercise is triggering your asthma symptoms. Your healthcare provider may prescribe an inhaler to use before hitting the treadmill.

Exercising can make you feel short of breath and lightheaded if you have emphysema or chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD). Some people might notice the dizziness first. Your healthcare provider can test your lungs and prescribe medication and respiratory therapy to help optimize your lung function.

Heart Disease

Dizziness during a workout could signal an underlying heart problem. According to a review published in 2022 in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, those problems may include:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Arrhythmia

Arrhythmia, an irregular heart rate, can be caused by a structural problem, or it can develop due to heart disease. Sometimes exertion is the only time you notice symptoms.

Heart diseases are managed with various lifestyle measures, medications, and procedures.

A Quick Review

Exercising is beneficial for most people, and according to the CDC, it's even helpful for people with serious health conditions. 

If you feel lightheaded while exercising, you may need to pay attention to your health and safety. But that should not completely stop you from exercising. 

Talk to a healthcare provider who can help you figure out what's going on—whether it's just changing your exercise habits or needing treatment for an underlying health issue.

Health's medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, is an assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine.

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