What do I need to know about exercise and AFib?

What do I need to know about exercise and AFib?

For starters, there are some key important facts to know about AFib and exercise. Some people find that exercise seems to cause their heart to go into atrial fibrillation, and their heart rate remains closer to normal when they are at rest.

Several studies suggest that atrial fibrillation is more common among trained athletes, and even previously trained athletes are at a greater risk of developing AFib when compared with a non-athletic or sedentary population. This appears to be especially true of older athletes and endurance athletes still training in their 40s and 50s. Although many of the reasons are speculative, studies suggest that years of intense exercise contribute to both chronic inflammation and also physiological changes in the atrium that eventually lead to increased risk of developing AFib. In some cases, detraining is recommended to lower risks and relieve symptoms.

AFib can reduce the pumping ability of your heart. During exercise, the body needs more blood to be efficiently delivered. If the heart is less efficient, you may notice that you fatigue more easily.

  • If you experience symptoms of lightheadedness or fatigue, do not chastise yourself for “laziness” or decide that you are “out of shape” and should push yourself harder.
  • Fatigue or light-headedness may be an important clue about your heart’s ability to keep up with the demands of exercise. Take note and let your healthcare provider know.
  • Start slowly, especially if you’ve not been exercising regularly.

With AFib, your heart’s rhythm and rate may change during exercise. Some people with AFib find that their heart rate and rhythm remains closer to normal when their body is either resting or relaxing, but intense physical activity causes their heart to go into atrial fibrillation.

  • Starting gently with ten to fifteen minutes a few times a week may help you evaluate whether your exercise triggers your heart into AFib.
  • Remember, some people are not aware of symptoms so you may be advised to monitor your heart initially.
  • If your healthcare provider has recommended that you monitor your heart rate or use a smartphone EKG reader, find out if you have special instructions for monitoring your heart’s activity during or after exercise.

Atrial fibrillation medications can alter your body’s response to exercise. Patients who take medications to slow their heart rate may find that their heart rate does not increase as much as they normally expect with exercise.

  • If your AFib medications keep your heart rate from going up, it usually indicates that the medications are doing a good job of controlling your heart rate.
  • If you are aiming for a target heart rate and medications seem to keep you from reaching your goal, consider asking your doctor for an alternate test of exertion like measuring how easy it is to talk, sing or carry on conversation during exercise. These can be good for checking your level of exertion, no matter what the pulse rate indicates.
  • You will still reap the beneficial effects of exercise, even if your heart rate is lowered by the medication.
Recent Discussions From The Exercise Forum
ken37712 avatar

I am in early 50s and diagnosed with lone AFib and persistent. An active runner, run 3 miles per day and keeping heart rate below 155. Generally don't feel the symptom except intense exercise. Nurse Practitioner suggested to consider Catheter Ablation (CA) due to my young age and persistent.

Options presented to me are: 1) Do nothing, 2) Cardioversion then medication, 3) Medication only 4) CA 5) Maze Surgical

I am scheduled for 1st Cardioversion + med but thinking long term between Med only or CA or even Maze but like to hear experiences from others who are in similar situation.

bshersey avatar

I celebrated my five-month anniversary of my one and only ablation (so far) by walking more than 15,000 steps in the 85-degree heat on Sunday afternoon here in Boston. That's nearly 6 miles and 3 hours of walking in the heat. At the time, I felt up to the challenge.

Boy did I regret it late Sunday night. I woke up with chest pain and palpitations. Neither were serious enough to make me worry I was having a heart attack or needed to go to the ER. Plus, I have passed every cardiac test in the world over the past few months and have received great reports from cardiologist and EP.

But my heart kept jumping between its normal 55-60 bpm and 95-100 bpm for the rest of the night. Not uneven beats like my afib. Just faster all of a sudden and then back to slower a few minutes later. I couldn't sleep and proceeded to drown my sorrows by eating a whole box of coconut popsicles while lying awake from 2 to 6 a.m., when I finally got up. 

I went to work, but took the day off from walking my usual 10,000-plus steps (a normal day for me with my regular commute is about 5,000 steps) and came home after work, ate a sensible and early dinner, took all my nightttime meds (sotalol, etc.), and got a good night's sleep. I also cut out the licorice extract supplement I had been taking for reflux because I read (while I was awake overnight) that it can cause afib and high blood pressure.

Today, after a night of rest and no licorice supplement, I feel much better and even went out for my usual noontime walk around Boston Common and the Public Garden. But I went much slower in the heat.

Important lesson learned: Even though I often feel recovered from the ablation five months ago, I still have a ways to go for full recovery and need to continue taking care of myself and not overdoing it. I'm 57, not 27 or even 37. This is going to take a while, I guess.

ThomasP avatar


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Fielding Graduate University


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