Most people who embark on a fitness regime are measuring their progress with a stopwatch, a tape measure, or a mirror.
At Medichecks we’re not interested in what you look like on the outside (although that can be a good indicator of general health), but are keen to help you understand what is happening on the inside, as usually improvements in personal bests are matched by improved biomarkers in the blood, lowering the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimers and even cancer. There is increasing evidence that a sedentary lifestyle raises the risk of all the metabolic diseases - human beings were designed to move, not to sit at a desk all day munching chocolate!
When putting together the blood tests for the Sports and Performance section on our website, we had in mind a whole range of needs, not just those of elite athletes. Whether you’re a weekend warrior, a regular gym goer, or an endurance athlete it is good to see the improvements that can quickly take place in your blood when exercise takes a regular place in your life.
However, sometimes, for sports people at all levels, things don’t go according to plan. You can feel tired, lacking motivation and struggling to recover after injury. You might be over-supplementing and throwing out the delicate balance of hormones and nutrients your body needs to function at an optimal level. You might be over-training and not giving your body the chance to recover causing chronic stress and inflammation – not a good combination for your health and well-being at any time, let alone when you’re aiming for a new PB.
So what can blood tests tell you about your performance?
- Full Blood Count - A full blood count or haemotology blood test tells you everything you should know about your red and white blood cells. Your red blood cells carry oxygen around your body to your muscles, and any problem in their ability to do this can affect your energy and performance. Your white blood cell count can tell you whether your body is fighting an infection or whether you are over-training.
- Hormones - Hormones, especially testosterone as well as its precursor, DHEA are important for building muscle and burning fat as well as for mood and motivation. Low levels might explain why you’re finding it difficult to lose those extra pounds and gain that six-pack you’ve been after. Endurance athletes are commonly low in testosterone so doing more strength work can raise testosterone levels.
- Thyroid function - Your thyroid is the gland which governs your metabolism, too low and you’re often lacking the energy to climb the stairs let alone run a 10k, too high and you’re jittery and nervous and finding it difficult to sleep. A low thyroid blood test result can often be the reason why, despite your diet and exercise programme, you struggle to lose those unwanted pounds.
- Adrenal function - Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and is a good indicator of the stress your body is under. Many of us try to fit in an ambitious exercise programme on top of our 100 mile an hour lives. If your cortisol level is too high or even too low it can tell you that you’re doing too much and something has to give. Try reducing your exercise workload and take time to relax, meditate and importantly, sleep.
- Inflammation - Exercise, especially a hard workout, damages tissue. It is this process of damage and subsequent repair that causes muscle to build (hormesis), but too much inflammation is a marker of over-training and damage to your muscular skeletal system. Acute inflammation is obvious through pain and swelling, but chronic low grade inflammation can’t be spotted. Our high sensitivity C-Reactive Protein blood test will identify whether you are suffering from chronic inflammation and need to incorporate more recovery and/or a better diet into your training regime.
- Nutrition - Sports nutrition is a huge field in its own right, but most of us will know whether we are getting the nutrients and energy we need from our diets just from how we feel before and after our workout. Two important vitamins and minerals we look at are vitamin B12 and Magnesium, which, if you have insufficient levels can result in extreme fatigue and muscle weakness as well as other symptoms.
- Insulin - Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas, which mobilises the sugar from our blood into our cells for energy. Type 2 diabetes occurs when too much sugar is consumed and the body’s cells become resistant to the action of insulin. Exercise is generally a very positive defense against type 2 diabetes, but sometimes insulin levels can be raised even in regular exercisers due to chronic stress (overtraining) or a poor diet too rich in sugar and carbohydrates. High levels of insulin can affect your body’s ability to store carbohydrates as well as other essential nutrients.
In our view, blood tests are not just to diagnose problems if you are ill, but to give you a window into how your body functions and how the choices you make every day can affect your health and well-being. Small adjustments to training, to nutrition, to rest and recovery can all play a part in optimsing your performance - and the evidence is in your blood!