Atrial fibrillation, often called AFib for short, is a common cause of an irregular heart rhythm. When your heart beats out of rhythm, this is known as heart arrhythmia. Your heart relies on a regular rhythm that comes from an electrical pattern in its chambers. With AFib, this pattern doesn’t transmit in an organized way. As a result, the heart’s upper chambers, known as the atria, don’t contract in a regular, rhythmic beat.
Transient episodes of AFib occur in what is called paroxysmal AFib. With chronic AFib, the heart has this arrhythmia at all times.
Treatments are available for AFib, and you can still live an active life with this condition. It’s important to take a few things into consideration when living with AFib, including exercising.
Side effects of AFib
AFib can be a concern for several reasons. Firstly, the lack of effective heart contractions makes blood swirl and pool in the atria. As a result, you can develop blood clots that can go anywhere in the body. If a clot goes into the brain, it can cause a stroke. If a clot goes into a lung, it can cause a pulmonary embolism.
Secondly, if the heart beats too fast, the rapid heart rate can lead to heart failure. Heart failure means that your heart muscle is unable to pump effectively or fill with enough blood. Thirdly, untreated AFib can lead to other heart arrhythmia-related problems, including chronic fatigue and depression.
Effects of AFib on exercise
One of the most common symptoms of AFib is tiring more easily when you exercise. Other AFib symptoms that can make exercising more difficult include:
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
AFib can make exercise difficult because your heart may start to race. A racing heart can make your blood pressure drop and cause you to feel faint. In this case, strenuous exercise can be more harmful than helpful.
In many cases, exercising with AFib can help you live a stronger life. Exercise helps you maintain a healthy weight, which can prevent heart failure from worsening. There are also benefits to physical activity that are especially helpful if you have AFib, including slowing your heart rate and lowering your blood pressure.
Having a good quality of life is an important goal if you have AFib, and exercise can help relieve anxiety and stress.
Before taking part in any kind of exercise, make sure to stretch your muscles or do some low-impact walking for about 10 minutes to allow your heart to adjust to the activity. Make sure you’re hydrated before you begin increasing your level of activity, too.
Once you’ve warmed up, try exercises such as power walking, jogging, or hiking to get a good workout without overloading your heart. Riding an exercise bike or using an elliptical machine or treadmill are also safe workouts for people with AFib.
Lifting light weights can also be a good workout. It can help you build muscle tone and strength without overloading your muscles or straining your heart.
At first, try short exercise periods of 5-10 minutes to make sure that exercise won’t cause you to feel lightheaded or faint. As you become comfortable with short periods of exercise, gradually add 5-10 minutes of exercise time until you feel that you’ve reached a satisfying personal fitness goal.
Exercises to avoid
If you haven’t exercised in a while, you don’t want to start with intense, high-impact exercise. When you exercise with AFib, you may want to start with short intervals of low-impact exercise. Then you can gradually increase the length and intensity of your workouts.
Try to avoid activities with a higher risk of causing injury, such as skiing or outdoor biking. Many blood thinner medications used to treat AFib may make you bleed more heavily when you’re injured.
If you plan to lift weights, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about how much weight is safe for you to lift. Lifting too much can put a lot of strain on your heart.
Talk to your doctor
Talk to your doctor about what you should and shouldn’t do when it comes to working out. If your AFib triggers any symptoms, your doctor may recommend you get the condition under better control before you start exercising. They may prescribe medications to try to keep your heart in rhythm or to keep your heart from beating too fast.
Your heart rate
You don’t have to engage in overly vigorous activity to enjoy the benefits of exercise. With AFib, it might be a better idea to keep your exercise at a moderate level at first. Keeping an eye on your heart rate can also help you maintain a safe pace during your workouts.
Many fitness and exercise trackers are available to help you monitor your heart rate. These fitness trackers are usually worn on your wrist like a watch (and usually look like watches, too). Many of them also record detailed heart rate statistics that you can view through an app on your smartphone, tablet, or home computer.
Among the most popular, well-known fitness tracker brands is Fitbit, which sells several models of fitness trackers with built-in heart rate monitors. Companies such as Apple, Garmin, and Samsung also sell fitness trackers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderately intense physical activity should be 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. To measure your heart rate while you work out, place your index and middle fingers on the thumb side of your opposite wrist, just below your thumb, or on the side of your neck. You can count your pulse for a full minute or count for 30 seconds and multiply by 2.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when checking your heart rate:
- Your maximum heart rate is determined by subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you’re 50 years old, your maximum heart rate would be 170 beats per minute (bpm).
- To exercise at a moderate level, your heart rate should be between 85 (from multiplying 170 x 0.5) and 119 (from multiplying 170 x 0.7) bpm.
If you take a medication known as a beta-blocker, you may notice your heart rate doesn’t seem to increase as much as you would think. This is because beta-blockers work to your slow heart rate, in addition to decreasing blood pressure. As a result, your heart may not beat as fast, even when you’re exercising at a moderate pace.
It’s normal to feel nervous about exercise when you have AFib. But you don’t always have to supervise your own heart rate during a solo workout. Talk to your doctor about cardiac rehabilitation.
Cardiac rehabilitation just means exercising at a health facility where your heart can be monitored. Options include a hospital, an outpatient center, or your doctor’s clinic. Staff at the facility can caution you if your heart rate becomes too rapid or if you have an abnormality in blood pressure. The staff is also specially trained to help people with heart conditions such as AFib and heart failure. They can provide tips on new exercises to consider and advice on exercise safety.
You may be asked to do an exercise stress test while you’re in cardiac rehabilitation. In this test, you’ll walk on a treadmill that’s adjusted for speed and incline while you’re connected to equipment that monitors your heart rate.
The exercise stress test allows your doctor to see how well your heart responds to exercise, as well as how efficiently and consistently it pumps blood into your body. This test can measure how much exercise your heart can take before AFib symptoms occur. Knowing what level of exercise is good for your heart can help you develop an exercise routine that’s safe for your AFib.
Stopping or seeking help
While you may be able to exercise with no complications from AFib, it’s still important that you know which symptoms mean to slow down or stop altogether. AFib can cause you to experience chest pain when exercising. If your chest pain doesn’t subside when you take a short break or rest, call 911 or your local emergency number. You might also consider having someone drive you to the emergency room.
Other symptoms you should seek emergency treatment for include:
- shortness of breath you can’t recover from
- shooting arm pain
- confusion or disorientation
- loss of consciousness
- sudden weakness on one side of your body
- slurred speech
- difficulty thinking clearly
Call your doctor if you have any other symptoms that cause you to feel uneasy or unwell.
If you have a pacemaker, talk to your doctor about how best to manage your exercise routine. Your doctor may want to combine other treatments for AFib with a pacemaker, such as medications or ablation (creating scar tissue to help control your heart rhythm). These treatments may improve your ability to handle longer or more intense workouts. Ask your doctor how these treatments will affect your heart before you develop an exercise routine.
Certain medications for AFib, such as warfarin (Coumadin), make you prone to bleed more when you get injured. If you’re taking this or another blood thinner, ask your doctor if it’s safe to take part in exercises that increase your risk of falls or physical injury.
Outlook and warnings
Ask your doctor to confirm whether you can take part in regular exercise sessions. Ideally, these would be at a moderate exercise level. Knowing the symptoms that could indicate you need to slow down or seek emergency medical attention can ensure that you stay healthy when exercising with AFib.