Atrial fibrillation, often called AFib, is a heart condition characterized by a heart arrhythmia — when the heart beats too quickly, too slowly, or in an irregular rhythm. People with AFib may be hesitant to exercise due to a fear of how exercise will affect their heart. Symptoms of AFib, like fatigue and shortness of breath, can also make exercising difficult. Luckily, exercising with AFib can be safe and can also provide benefits to a person’s heart and overall health.
“I have found that exercise does indeed help me,” said one MyHeartDiseaseTeam member with AFib. “I take a silver sneakers exercise class that has cardio, strength training, and resistance as part of the program. Most are chair exercises and a few standing exercises. It has helped me a lot.”
There are many benefits to exercising in general, and these benefits extend to people with AFib. Before starting any exercise routine or program, it is best to consult your cardiologist. While exercising with AFib can be safe, there are precautions and tips to keep in mind for selecting a type of exercise, engaging in physical activity, and monitoring your symptoms during your workout.
Exercising with atrial fibrillation provides benefits to your heart, as well as your physical and mental health. However, certain types of exercise present increased health risks to people with AFib and should be avoided.
According to the American College of Cardiology, people with AFib who exercise experience fewer episodes of AFib, fewer hospital visits, and a better quality of life — compared to people with AFib who do not exercise. Exercising with AFib may also increase a person’s ability to participate in activities of daily living like eating, bathing, and getting dressed.
Exercising with AFib also provides other benefits:
“Finding the right exercise is difficult, but the experience at an adaptive pace is rewarding,” wrote one MyHeartDiseaseTeam member.
While the benefits may outweigh the risks, it is important to be aware of the risks of exercising with AFib. Strenuous or high-impact exercise easily increases heart rate, which in turn decreases blood pressure and can cause feelings like faintness or dizziness. Vigorous exercise can also produce high levels of adrenaline, which can sometimes worsen heart arrhythmia in people with AFib. Be sure to ask your doctor if high-intensity exercises are safe for you.
With some types of exercise, like mountain biking or skiing, there is an increased chance of injury. Many people with AFib take anticoagulants, medications that thin the blood and prevent blood clots. These medications increase the risk of bruising and bleeding more heavily in the case of an exercise-related accident.
There are several tips to keep in mind to minimize risks and create a positive experience while exercising with AFib.
Due to health and heart risks, strenuous or high-impact exercises are not usually advised for people with AFib. This type of activity should only be practiced with a cardiologists’ approval. Exercises with a high chance of injuries, like mountain biking or contact sports, should be avoided by people with AFib who take blood thinners.
Weightlifting is another type of exercise that is not usually recommended for people with AFib. Lifting heavy weights puts stress on the heart, which can be harmful for those with a heart condition like AFib. Strength training with light weights can be an appropriate option.
There are health and safety precautions for anyone engaging in physical activity, and several additional precautions for those with a heart rhythm disorder.
Certain AFib medications, like beta blockers, can decrease your normal heart rate. Therefore your heart rate will not get as high as the average person’s while exercising. The heart rate guides and monitors on cardio machines like ellipticals or treadmills won’t be accurate for someone with AFib who is taking these medications. To measure your heart rate while exercising, health care experts recommend using a chest strap or a watch-like fitness tracker.
The type of AFib you have is also important when considering exercise options. If you have paroxysmal AFib, when the heart beats irregularly only now and then (called AFib episodes), it is best to exercise when your heart is beating normally. With persistent AFib, when a person has an irregular heart beat all of the time, it is OK to exercise whenever you’re feeling well enough.
Before starting any exercise program, consult your doctor. They can help determine the best type of exercise for you and also help to get your arrhythmia symptoms under control before you engage in physical activity. Ask your doctor any questions you have about exercising and physical exertion, and feel free to ask for recommendations about classes and activity programs for people with AFib.
The types of exercises most commonly recommended for people with AFib include low impact aerobic exercises like:
For adults, the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. However, the amount of physical activity you can accomplish will depend on your AFib symptoms and how well you are feeling.
“I always exercise, five minutes, 10 minutes. It doesn't matter. Just do some cardiovascular exercise,” wrote one member of MyHeartDiseaseTeam.
Certain AFib symptoms — like fatigue — might make it difficult to exercise. Even if you can do just a short amount of low impact exercise, like walking for 15 minutes every day, you will get some health benefits from it.
When exercising with AFib, it’s important to listen to your body and stop if you experience lightheadedness. Tracking your heart rate may be helpful to make sure it doesn’t get too high, but since medications may lower your heart rate, it is just as important to monitor your symptoms while engaging in physical activity. Stop and call your physician if you experience symptoms like chest pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, an unusually rapid heart rate, or any other symptoms that feel different than usual.
Other tips for exercising safely with AFib include:
“Walk when you feel the strongest — early in the morning maybe. Go for short walks, then come back home to sit and rest. Walk again later in the day — also short walks. Try not to stress your body too much,” encouraged one member of MyHeartDiseaseTeam.
Depending on your type of AFib and other health factors, cardiac rehabilitation may be an appropriate option. Cardiac rehabilitation combines physical activity, education, counseling, and support to help people regain cardiovascular function. Cardiac rehabilitation is usually used after serious cardiovascular events like heart attacks or surgeries. Cardiac rehabilitation programs often begin when a person is still in the hospital and continue afterward in an outpatient or at-home setting. Some programs are covered by insurance.
Cardiac rehabilitation programs can reduce the risk of death due to a cardiac event and also reduce the risk of having another serious heart event. Talk to your doctor to see if you're eligible for a cardiac rehabilitation program.
When seeking to be physically active with AFib, joining a support group and talking about your experiences may be helpful. Finding a friend to exercise with can also make it more fun and more likely that you will stick with regular workouts.
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