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Living Well With Atrial Fibrillation

Posted on September 15, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Glenn Gandelman, M.D., M.P.H.
Article written by
Maureen McNulty

Receiving a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation, or AFib, can be scary and overwhelming. You may have questions and concerns about treatment, appointments, and how to best take care of yourself. Fortunately, there are people and resources available to help you navigate these unknowns and to offer advice on living well with atrial fibrillation.

Lifestyle Actions To Support Your Health

It is important to take care of your body with proper diet and exercise. Eating well and moving your body will help you regain your energy and strength, keep your heart as healthy as possible, and feel better overall.

Exercise

Getting physical activity is important for heart health. Exercise may reduce AFib symptoms, protect you from getting other types of heart disease, treat other heart-related problems like hypertension (high blood pressure), and boost your mood. It can also help prevent complications from AFib, including strokes and heart failure.

Experts, including those at the American Heart Association, recommend adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week. These minutes can be divided up however you want — for example, each week you could take five 30-minute walks.

You should aim for activity with at least a moderate intensity level. During this type of exercise, your heart rate increases slightly and you breathe a little harder than usual. However, you can still carry on a conversation. Examples of moderate-intensity exercise include:

  • Walking at a medium or fast speed
  • Riding a bike at a low speed
  • Water aerobics
  • Playing doubles tennis
  • Pulling weeds in the garden
  • Mowing the lawn with a push mower
  • Vacuuming or cleaning the house

Some people may also be interested in strength training or resistance workouts. During this type of exercise, you use weights to build muscle. However, people with heart disorders should check with their doctors before performing this type of physical activity. The heart needs to work extra hard during weightlifting exercises, meaning that it may not be a good fit for some people with AFib. Using lighter weights may be OK, but ask your doctor first.

One of the best ways to develop an exercise habit is to start slow. Pick a small, easy activity that you enjoy. Try recruiting friends or family members to join you in a walk or an exercise class. Before you begin exercising, be sure to talk with your doctor to make sure it is appropriate for you.

Read about more tips for exercising with atrial fibrillation.

Balanced Diet

Eating a diet that provides a wide range of nutrients is important for people with AFib. A heart-healthy diet can help your heart muscle work properly and reduce your risk of stroke.

In general, focus on eating more foods that contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Eat fewer foods that contain salt, cholesterol, and unhealthy fats (saturated fats and trans fats). Diet habits that help with heart health include:

  • Replace refined grains — such as white bread, pasta, and cake — with whole grains, including whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and oatmeal.
  • Put more fruits and vegetables on your plate.
  • Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Avoid fried vegetables and fruit products with added sugar.
  • Add foods with healthy fats to your diet. Options include olive oil, nuts, flaxseeds, and avocado.
  • Eat low-fat protein, such as fish, poultry, and beans, rather than red meat and processed meats.
  • Minimize processed foods.
  • Eat smaller portions, especially when eating high-calorie foods.
  • Limit how much alcohol and caffeine you drink.

Some people have an easier time with healthy eating when they follow a more specific eating plan. Many experts recommend the DASH eating plan or the Mediterranean diet for heart health. If you are looking for more personalized advice or want to ensure you are getting all of the nutrients you need, you may want to talk to a registered dietitian or a certified nutritionist.

Other Lifestyle Factors

Additional healthy lifestyle changes can help protect against AFib. It is important to manage other health conditions you may have, as other disorders can sometimes lead to AFib or make it worse. For example, diabetes can lead to a higher risk of developing AFib. Additionally, people with obstructive sleep apnea are more likely to be diagnosed with AFib. Having untreated obstructive sleep apnea also makes you more likely to develop AFib again after receiving AFib treatment. Managing your medical conditions and getting enough sleep helps prevent AFib.

Quitting smoking also helps with heart health. Smoking cigarettes is a risk factor for AFib. People who quit are 36 percent less likely to develop atrial fibrillation in the future.

Stress and Mental Health

It is common to feel stressed when you are diagnosed with a heart condition. It is important to find ways to manage your stress so it does not affect your quality of life.

Some people find that talking to a friend or family member helps to allay some of their stress. In addition, many find comfort by joining a support group and connecting with other people who are facing the same diagnosis. You can connect with others online on MyHeartDiseaseTeam. The American Heart Association also offers a support network and resources for people with AFib and their families and caregivers.

The Importance of Managing Stress

Taking care of your mental well-being can make a big difference while living with atrial fibrillation. One study found that AFib episodes were 85 percent less likely to occur on days when people are feeling happy and content. When stress or negative emotions like anger or sadness linger, you may have worse heart function.

Strategies for Managing Stress

Many relaxation exercises can help decrease stress and put you in a better mood. There are a variety of resources available to help you learn and practice relaxation techniques, including books, online videos, and apps for your phone. Some types of relaxation exercises include:

  • Meditation
  • Guided imagery or visualization exercises
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Massage
  • Aromatherapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Music therapy and art therapy

Exercise can also be a great stress reliever. Moving your body, staying active, and getting outside can play a big role in boosting your mood. In particular, yoga and tai chi may be great options for people with AFib. These exercises combine physical activity with aspects of relaxation and meditation. They may also help you release stress and lower inflammation levels throughout the body. Studies have found that people with AFib who practice yoga have reduced symptoms and fewer AFib episodes.

Many people with chronic health conditions also find psychotherapy beneficial. A therapist can give you tools for dealing with stress and anxiety related to your diagnosis and treatment. In many cases, people with chronic disorders develop more severe mental health problems. Contact your doctor or a mental health professional if you begin experiencing symptoms of depression, such as ongoing feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or numbness, or symptoms of anxiety, like an impending sense of doom or difficulty focusing due to worry.

Managing Appointments and Treatments

After a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation, it will be important to have a supportive health care team you can rely on for treatment. This team may include a cardiologist (a doctor who specializes in heart problems), an electrophysiologist (a cardiologist who is an expert in issues that affect electrical signals in the heart), and other health care professionals. They will oversee your appointments and treatments and ensure you get the care you need.

Staying on Top of Appointments

When it comes to treatment and preparing a schedule, communication with your health care team is key. If you prefer certain days or times for your appointments, inform your team so they can accommodate your needs. Keep a calendar with all the dates and times of your appointments or set reminders in your phone’s calendar. This will help you stay organized and keep all information in one place. Depending on your health care system, you may have access to an online health portal where you can see your appointment dates in one place.

Communicating With Your Doctor

Asking your doctor a lot of questions about your condition can feel awkward or embarrassing. However, doing your best to communicate with your health care team has benefits. When people understand AFib better, they tend to feel more confident in managing the condition and experience fewer symptoms.

To get the most out of your appointments and treatments, be sure to plan in advance. Often, doctors are on a tight schedule and have limited time to spend with each person. Here are some tips for making the most effective use of your appointments:

  • Spend some time reading about AFib before your appointment.
  • Write down your questions to make sure you remember them.
  • Ask the most important questions first.
  • Bring along a friend or family member to take notes and help you remember all of the information you discuss with your doctor.
  • If you don’t understand what your doctor is telling you, ask questions until things become more clear. This is especially important when it comes to choosing treatment options and following your doctor’s instructions.
  • After your appointment, review what you’ve learned and call your health care team if there was something that didn’t make sense. You may also be able to use your online health portal to send a message to your provider.

When you receive a diagnosis of a heart condition, it is imperative to take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Remember, you are not doing this alone, and support is available to you.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyHeartDiseaseTeam is the social network for people living with heart disease and their loved ones. On MyHeartDiseaseTeam, more than 40,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with heart disease.

Are you living with atrial fibrillation? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyHeartDiseaseTeam.

Glenn Gandelman, M.D., M.P.H. is assistant clinical professor of medicine at New York Medical College and in private practice specializing in cardiovascular disease in Greenwich, Connecticut. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Maureen McNulty studied molecular genetics and English at Ohio State University. Learn more about her here.

A MyHeartDiseaseTeam Member said:

I sure know that! You have to advocate for yourself!!

posted 2 days ago

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