Can Vitamin D Enhance Your Fitness Routine?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Researchers have believed that vitamin D is important to your bone, brain, and heart health for many years.

Thanks to a new study, they now think people with high levels of vitamin D get a boost in their workout routines, too.

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The findings add to the increasing evidence that vitamin D plays a role in heart health, boosting exercise capacity, and possibly reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Previous studies have found that people who exercise regularly are more likely to have high vitamin D levels.

This study looked at the connection between those vitamin D levels and overall cardiorespiratory fitness, or how well your body performs during exercise.

Cardiorespiratory fitness is best measured by the maximum amount of oxygen you consume during exercise.

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This number presents a picture of how effectively your lungs and heart work together during exercise to move oxygen around your body to the muscles that need it.

The findings are reported as your VO2 max.

People with a greater cardiorespiratory health, or higher VO2 max capacity, can exercise longer and more vigorously.

That means they may also have greater overall health compared to individuals with lower cardiorespiratory health.

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These people may live longer, healthier lives as a result.

What the study showed

To reach their findings, the researchers looked at nearly 2,000 individuals between the ages of 20 and 49.

The nationwide study, which was conducted between 2001 and 2004, compared vitamin D levels in each participant’s blood with their cardiorespiratory fitness, which was measured by a treadmill test.

Participants were then divided into quartiles, or four equal groups, based on their vitamin D levels.

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The cardiorespiratory fitness for individuals in the top quarter of participants was 4.3 times higher than people in the bottom quartile.

Even after adjusting for factors that can influence this relationship — age, sex, race, body mass index, hypertension, diabetes, and smoking history, for example — the link remained significant.

The top quarter of participants still had a cardiorespiratory fitness 2.9 times greater than people in the bottom section.

Each 10-point increase in vitamin D levels in the blood was associated with a 0.78-point increase in V02 max.

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This suggests that incremental increases in vitamin D equal an equivalent improvement in your exercise capacity.

Marawan is quick to point out that their research is only an observational study. It can’t show a cause-and-effect relationship between vitamin D and exercise capabilities.

However, he added in the statement to ESC that the association between the two factors is “strong, incremental, and consistent across groups.”

Where to get vitamin D

The study also didn’t answer what the best sources of vitamin D are.

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Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, develops naturally in your body in response to sun exposure.

It’s also found naturally in some foods, such as fish and egg yolks.

While your body can make vitamin D naturally, it can only do so during adequate sun exposure. That amount of sunlight is difficult to find in winter months and in latitudes above the 37th parallel north (a line that runs roughly through the United States from San Francisco to New York).

In these months, it’s better to look for the vitamin in fatty fish, including tuna, mackerel, and salmon, as well as egg yolks, fortified cereal and milk, and cheese. Some leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and collard greens, are also good sources of vitamin D.

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Supplements can be used to boost your levels of this important vitamin, too.

“The daily recommended dose is 400 to 800 international units (IU),” Marawan told ishonest. “There are some studies supporting higher doses up to 4,000 IU for better cardiovascular health, but more studies didn’t support this. There is no agreement that higher vitamin D supplements will have a better outcome.”

But you have to use caution with supplements.

Too much vitamin D can lead to toxicity. Symptoms of vitamin D toxicity include vomiting, nausea, and weakness.

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“There’s nothing that substitutes for what your mom told you: Eat healthy, exercise, and listen to your body,” says Dr. Nicole Weinberg, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “It’s probably not as complicated as we’re trying to make it.”

Weinberg says she encourages her patients to try exercise and an improved diet over supplements to boost their cardiovascular health.

“Those are the things that I see time and time again show for longevity, heart health, brain health, infection, and more,” she told ishonest.

The benefits of vitamin D

The study from Marawan and colleagues isn’t the first research to connect vitamin D levels to heart health and exercise capacity.

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In 2011, Harvard researchers released a study that found that people who exercise vigorously and regularly have higher levels of vitamin D.

A 2017 study from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland found a “synergistic” link between exercise and good vitamin D levels, too. The researchers determined that people who exercise more have higher levels of vitamin D, and the most active study participants with the highest levels of vitamin D also had the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease.

From all these studies, however, it’s still unclear whether vitamin D is driving fitness, or if increased fitness helps the body boost vitamin D stores.

It appears instead that the two work together to equally enhance one another.

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That means that taking more vitamin D alone isn’t going to improve your VO2 max or fitness capabilities. You have to exercise to reap the benefits.

“Physical activity and fitness are correlated, so it is not surprising to me that vitamin D would be associated with fitness,” Dr. Erin D. Michos, MS, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology and associate director of preventive cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told ishonest.

“But I would be very cautious in then interpreting this as vitamin D is contributing to an increase in VO2 max in a causal or direct manner. It may simply be that people who are doing more physical activity are more fit, and people who are doing more outdoor physical activity have higher vitamin D levels, but not that vitamin D levels are directly related to fitness.”

The bottom line

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People with moderate to high vitamin D levels may have the greatest cardiorespiratory fitness.

However, you shouldn’t consume large doses of vitamin D supplements to increase your supply of this important nutrient.

Instead, try to eat vitamin D-rich foods and get a sensible amount of sunshine exposure. (Talk to your dermatologist if you have a history of skin cancer.) Take a supplement only if directed to by your doctor.

If you aren’t sure what your vitamin D levels are or should be, request a test from your doctor. Together, you can review the results and consider options for increasing your levels if they’re low.

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