While it’s more prevalent among older people, anyone of any age can have atrial fibrillation. This heart condition can be troubling for younger adults who like to be active. If you have atrial fibrillation, can you exercise safely?
The short answer is: yes! But there are several things you should do to make physical activity safer for you.
1. What is atrial fibrillation?
First of all, let’s review what atrial fibrillation is.
Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition affecting heart rhythm. People with A-Fib have upper and lower heart chambers that do not work together appropriately, and heartbeats may be much faster than normal.
A-Fib is often caused by changes to the heart’s tissue and its electrical signals. You may be at increased risk of A-Fib if you are:
- Age 65 and older
- An alcohol, tobacco, or recreational drug user
- An athlete who does endurance sports
- An inactive person
- From a family with a history of A-Fib
Sometimes, A-Fib has no signs or symptoms. However, the most common symptom is fatigue, and other signs and symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath, even when lying down
- Low blood pressure (hypotension)
- Dizziness, fainting
- Chest pain
- Palpitations of the heart
A-Fib can manifest as one of four different sub-types: paroxysmal, persistent, long-term persistent, and permanent. These sub-types are defined by how often the A-Fib occurs and how the condition responds to treatment.
2. Why exercise with atrial fibrillation?
Physical activity has numerous health benefits for atrial fibrillation.
A-Fib patients who exercise report less hospital visits, fewer episodes, and a better quality of life, according to the American College of Cardiology. Exercise also has numerous general health benefits, such as:
- Protecting the heart against other heart diseases you may be at risk for
- Reducing stress and improving mental health
- Weight loss, which may help reduce symptoms and episodes of A-Fib
- Releasing feel-good hormones that improve mood
- Improving sex drive
3. How do you exercise safely with atrial fibrillation?
There are several precautions you can take if you wish to exercise with A-Fib.
Talk to your doctor.
Everyone is different. Your doctor will have a good overall picture of your personal state of health, so let them know if you are interested in a new exercise regimen. Your exercise regimen may depend on your existing physical condition, the medications you take, other conditions you may have, medical devices you use, and previous medical procedures.
Your doctor can give you personalized professional advice on how to best exercise safely. Your doctor can also advise against exercise (or certain types of exercise) if they deem it too unsafe for your particular condition.
Take your medication.
This may come as a no-brainer, but if you have been prescribed medications, remember to take them appropriately.
Avoid exercises that may result in injury if you take a blood thinner.
If you take a blood thinner medication, you may need to be extra cautious around sports that are dangerous, such as full-contact martial arts or extreme outdoor sports. You can also easily mitigate dangers by wearing the appropriate protective gear such as helmets and knee pads.
Don’t overestimate your abilities. Do what’s comfortable for you and err on the side of caution if you participate in risky activities.
Learn what are the signs that you should stop.
Ask your doctor what signs and symptoms indicate you should stop exercising, including when it may be a sign of a medical emergency. If having a medical emergency is a possibility, it may be smart to always exercise with a partner who is aware of your condition. You should also bring a reliable method of communication, such as a mobile phone with an emergency number on speed dial, when you go exercising.
Standard heart rate targets on exercise machines may not be accurate.
If you take a medication that lowers your normal heart rate, the heart rate targets that come with exercise machines like treadmills and ellipticals may not be appropriate for you. The American College of Cardiology recommends using a chest strap that is similar to an ECG. Ask your doctor for more information on meeting your fitness goals.
4. Go exercise!
As you can see, having A-Fib doesn’t mean you have to stop being active. You just have to take a few extra precautions, but these will give you peace of mind to enjoy your workout, no matter what sport you choose.