You know that physical activity is good for you. But if you’ve been diagnosed with a heart rhythm disorder such as atrial fibrillation (AFib), you might be afraid to do anything that will get your heart pumping.
That’s understandable. But AFib or not, exercise is essential to heart health — and good health overall. “Physical exercise is so important, in all facets of health,” says Henry Ford cardiologist Arfaat M. Khan, M.D.
We talked to Dr. Khan to find out why you should exercise with AFib, and how to move your body while protecting your heart.
Atrial Fibrillation and Exercise
Maybe you’ve heard that working out too much puts people at risk for AFib. But the reality is more complicated.
Some evidence suggests that endurance athletes — those who push themselves to the extreme end of the exercise spectrum — may be at greater risk for developing atrial fibrillation. Most of us are not competing in cross-country ski races or running ultramarathons, however. “And for people with AFib, regular exercise can help keep the condition in check,” Dr. Khan says.
Researchers have found that among people who have atrial fibrillation, those who are most fit have the fewest AFib episodes. People with the lowest levels of fitness, by contrast, have more frequent episodes.
Studies also show that no matter how fit you are to begin with, if you start exercising more, the number of AFib episodes goes down. In other words, whether you’re super fit or in not-so-great shape, physical activity can help keep AFib at bay.
AFib and Weight Loss
Exercise contributes to good health in all sorts of ways, of course. But one of the most important ways it might help people with AFib is by helping them maintain a healthy weight.
Obesity increases the risk of atrial fibrillation. And when people with AFib and obesity lose weight and maintain that weight loss, they have fewer and less severe episodes of AFib.
Losing weight can also help make treatments more effective. One common treatment for AFib is ablation, which destroys the area of heart tissue that’s causing the abnormal signals. “Numerous studies show that people who lose weight before or after ablation are less likely to have a recurrence of AFib,” Dr. Khan says.
Exercising with AFib: Getting Started
You’re ready to get moving. But how can you exercise safely with AFib?
“If you aren’t already active, you should seek advice from your doctor before getting started,” Dr. Khan says.
Once you get the OK from your doctor:
- Start slow: “If you’re new to activity, I recommend starting with brief walks,” Dr. Khan says. “Not just an easy stroll, but pushing yourself to get your heart rate up to a moderately elevated range.”
- Set a goal: The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise. But you don’t have to get there all at once. Start with daily 10-minute walks, then work your way up to 20- or 30-minute walks. You can also increase your pace to get more of a workout.
- Do what you love: “If walking isn’t your thing, feel free to find something else you enjoy,” Dr. Khan says. “Swimming, volleyball, a stationary bike … anything you like to do that will get you moving.”
AFib and Exercise: More Ways to Get Moving
“Find ways to be more active in your daily life,” Dr. Khan adds. “Try parking farther away from your destination or taking the stairs instead of the elevator,” he says. “Those small things add up to better heart health.”
If you’re exercising and experience symptoms such as lightheadedness, chest discomfort or significant shortness of breath, take a time out and consult with your doctor. But you shouldn’t be afraid to find ways to move your muscles.
“The bottom line is, people who exercise live longer,” Dr. Khan says. “It’s such an important aspect of overall health.”
Dr. Arfaat Khan is a board-certified cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital.