(WellnessNova.com) - Health experts agree that exercise is a great way to reduce the risk of heart disease. But is that true for people who already have a heart condition—specifically, atrial fibrillation? AFib is a heart rhythm disorder where the heart beats too fast, too slow, or in an irregular pattern. Adding exercise to an already erratic heart rate might seem like a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately, that’s not the case. Like other heart patients, most people with AFib can exercise safely and effectively. In fact, exercising with AFib is recommended because it helps strengthen the heart and regulate the body’s biological rhythms, which help those who suffer from the condition stay healthy and fit.
The trick is to know how to exercise with AFib and to be aware of the triggers that can lead to arrhythmia episodes so you can prevent them.
Why Exercise Helps Atrial Fibrillation
Exercise has specific perks for people with AFib, including lowering blood pressure and slowing heart rate. For those who suffer fatigue, a common symptom of AFib, exercise can boost energy levels and make you feel better. Exercise also helps people maintain a healthy weight, which promotes overall heart health.
But exercise goes beyond helping AFib patients physically; it can improve sleep patterns, mood, and stress levels, too. Many AFib patients grow anxious or depressed over their condition. Fear of an arrhythmia attack can prevent them from engaging in activities they normally would.
That’s especially true for people with implantable cardioverter defibrillators who worry that exercise will provoke an ICD shock. But a study performed by the University of Washington School of Nursing showed that exercise didn’t cause shocks in ICD patients, but actually improved fitness and quality of life.
Of course, exercising with AFib takes some know-how and precautions, but you might be surprised at how flexible and fun exercising with AFib can be.
Best Exercise for AFib Patients
With a doctor’s okay, people living with AFib can perform any activities they are able to tolerate, says the American Heart Association. So you can pick and choose how you like to exercise—as long as you can handle it. What’s tolerable for one AFib patient, though, may not be for another.
People with AFib who have significant heart problems must be extra careful. Exercise can make their heart suddenly accelerate to a very rapid rate. This can cause low blood pressure or loss of consciousness. On the flip side, some AFib patients struggle to get their heart rate up during exercise. Medications can further complicate things by slowing down the heart rate so that a target heart rate can’t be reached.
Despite the different effects exercise can have on AFib patients, most can safely engage in moderate-intensity exercise. Unlike vigorous exercise, which has been linked to the onset and worsening of atrial fibrillation, moderate-intensity exercise is tied to heart health and a lower risk of dying from heart disease.
Research published by the Heart Rhythm Society, however, found that women living with AFib can safely exercise at a moderate or vigorous level while men should stick with moderate exercise.
So how do you know if your intensity level is moderate? If you can talk but not sing, reports WebMD. If you can’t speak more than a few words without taking a breath, slow down — you’re exercising too vigorously.
While any form of moderate exercise works for AFib patients, a recent study conducted by the University of Western Sydney suggests that moderate-intensity dancing can do wonders for the heart—even more than fast walking. In fact, dancers of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and lifestyles were less likely to die from heart disease than non-dancers, according to the study. Plus, dancing is fun, full of variety, and good for the brain!
Yoga is another excellent form of exercise for people with AFib. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that AFib patients who practiced yoga for an hour twice a week had improved heart rhythm, lowered blood pressure, and less depression and anxiety than those who didn’t do yoga exercises.
Ease Into an Exercise Program
Whatever form of exercise you choose, don’t jump into it full force. Always consult a doctor to make sure you get the green light to begin exercising. Some arrhythmia patients have underlying conditions that should be treated first. A doctor will discuss any exercise limitations to help ensure a safe exercise regimen.
It’s also important to let the body get acclimated to physical activity and new forms of exercise. Begin slowly, with 10 minutes of walking or biking, for example. Then gradually build up to a half hour of moderate exercise per day, most days of the week. Regular exercise is key to maintaining heart health.
Your doctor will be able to tell you where your heart rate should be during exercise for health benefits and safety. Even so, monitoring your heart rate may not be useful since atrial fibrillation medications can slow your pulse.
Safety Precautions for AFib Exercisers
Staying safe during exercise is important for everyone, but especially for those with a heart condition makes safety precautions even more vital.
It’s imperative you follow basic safety guidelines for exercise, including taking the time to stretch and warm up before physical activity. This helps you avoid injury and damage to joints and muscles. It also gives the body a chance to prepare for activity. Cooling down is just as important and allows the heart to slowly adjust to its normal rhythm.
Be sure to drink plenty of water during exercise, too. If you have fluid restrictions, find the right balance between staying hydrated and not exceeding the amount of water you should be drinking.
Exercise that puts you at risk for accidents or injury requires extra precautions. Since many people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation use blood thinners, falling from a bike or tripping on uneven terrain could lead to scrapes and dangerous bleeding. Always wear safety gear for activities that warrant it.
Most important, pay attention to your body. If you feel lightheaded, dizzy, tired, or short of breath, take a break or stop the exercise session altogether. You never want to overdo exercise with AFib and risk triggering an arrhythmia episode that lands you in the emergency room.
Exercising has many benefits for AFib patients—as long as you do it with diligence and care. A safe and effective exercise program won’t just keep the rhythm of your heart regular; it’ll improve your overall health, well-being, and quality of life.