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Q&A

What are the possible risks of exercising at high altitudes?

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Are there any possible risks of exercising (body weight, calisthenics only) at high altitudes? I'm talking of altitudes above 4500m. The whole premise is not to lose muscle mass.

Background: I'll be trekking in the Himalayan region for a couple of months this year. Most of the treks are in the range of 4500m-5900m. Since I'll be on many long hikes, I do not want to lose the muscle mass by not doing my regular workouts (all calisthenics, no weights/machines involved).

Please assume that I will have a good source of proteins. The question is purely on the any possible risks of high altitude workouts.

EDIT: Please consider a fit middle aged person with zero medical issues. Who is well acclimatized for the given altitude. I'm not worried about specifics of a person. I'm more interested in how high altitude workouts could affect a person. Mostly due to oxygen deficiency.

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There is no "abnormal" risk involved with strength exercises at high altitude. What I mean by "abnormal" is, that there is nothing different about doing body-weight strength exercises compared to e.g. climbing, which is not uncommonly done at such altitudes. You will certainly not be able to do workouts at the same intensity as at low altitudes. It is even quite likely to be a problem, that you won't be able to get to the intensities needed to maintain your current peak strength, due to exhausting your "base endurance" first. And as with all increased activity at high altitude, this might exacerbate existing or reveal new symptoms of AMS. So in the end compared to exercising at low altitude you simply need to adjust your training intensity and listen to your body even more closely (and most importantly, also act accordingly if you feel something).

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Exercises actively affects the viscosity of the blood. High altitude and exercises affects amount of hematocrit in the blood. This increases the load on the heart and causes blood flow disorders.

I saw people vomiting on 4500 and I saw people died on 5500m from heart attack and they were not doing any additional exercises. Personally I would be very careful with exercises on high altitude.

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The real question here is how do I maintain muscle mass at high altitude, with the flawed premise that resistance exercise is the only way. Exercising to maintain muscle mass at high altitude will be futile for most, and should be a low priority for everyone.

To maintain muscle mass you not only need resistance exercise, need to have an adequate diet with enough protein to maintain the exercised muscles. Lack of oxygen causes the digestive system to shut down and keeping adequate food intake is hard. Many people find the only food they tolerate at high altitude is simple carbohydrates.

As exercising depletes oxygen available for digestion, the effect on the digestion is likely reduce tolerance for food, especially more complex foods such as proteins needed after resistance exercise. The smallest loss of muscle mass will most likely come from spending the time resting, eating and hydrating.

In the unlikely event you have consumed enough calories (especially enough protein) to replace you daily needs, the small amount of exercise you will be able to do will not make a make a big difference to muscle mass loss.

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