A sedentary lifestyle is one of the five major risk factors that the American Heart Association (AHA) has identified for heart disease. Other risk factors include: high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, and abnormal values for blood lipids. Many scientific studies have shown that reducing these risk factors can decrease your chances of heart attack or stroke and your need for heart-related medical procedures, such as bypass surgery.
Why Exercise Is Important to Heart Health
A great way to counteract these risk factors is through physical activity. Regular exercise has been proven to help heart health. It can even reverse some risk factors for cardiovascular disease by helping with weight loss and lowering blood pressure.
According to the medical journal Circulation, the risk of a cardiac event is significantly lower among regular exercisers. Evidence suggests that people who exercise regularly are much less likely to experience a problem during exercise. In fact, a sedentary person’s risk is nearly 50 times higher than the risk of a person who exercises five times per week.
Why You Should Take Precautions
Exercise is vital in helping to prevent heart disease and is generally considered by the AHA to be “extremely safe” in most cases. Still, it’s important to observe proper precautions. This is especially true if:
- your doctor has told you that you have one or more of the risk factors for heart disease
- you have recently experienced a heart attack or other heart problem
- you have previously been inactive
People with heart disease can nearly always exercise safely if they’re evaluated beforehand. However, exercise isn’t appropriate for all heart disease patients. Talk to your doctor before beginning a new exercise program. They may determine that you need to begin your workout under medical supervision.
Even with this precaution, it can be difficult for your doctor to predict health problems that you might experience while exercising. To be safe, familiarize yourself with symptoms that may suggest harmful complications. Becoming aware of some typical warning signs of a heart-related problem could be life-saving.
Signs of Heart Trouble
Even if you’ve previously had a heart attack, another one could have entirely different symptoms, according to Circulation. If any of the following symptoms occur during your workout, seek medical attention immediately—even if you’re unsure if it’s something serious.
Many people associate sudden and intense chest pain with heart attack. While some heart attacks may begin this way, according to the AHA, many begin with a feeling of mild discomfort, uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or fullness in the center of the chest. It can be subtle and may come and go, so it can be difficult to tell what’s wrong. If this symptom lasts for more than a few minutes, stop exercising and seek medical attention.
Shortness of Breath
A feeling of unusual breathlessness with chest discomfort during an activity is often a precursor to a heart attack. This symptom can occur before chest discomfort or may even occur with no chest discomfort, according to the AHA.
Dizziness or Light-Headedness
While physical activity may make you feel fatigued, especially if you’re not used to it, you should never feel dizzy or light-headed while exercising. Take this warning sign seriously and stop exercising right away.
Heart Rhythm Abnormalities
The sensation of your heartbeat skipping, palpitating, or thumping could indicate a heart-related problem. If you observe any unusual heart rhythms during your workout, seek medical attention.
Discomfort in Other Areas of the Body
Heart problems can cause sensations in other areas of the body besides your chest. Symptoms can include discomfort, pain, or pressure in one or both arms, your back, neck, jaw, or stomach. You might also experience a sensation of discomfort radiating from one part of your body to another, such as from your chest, jaw, or neck into your shoulder, arm, or back.
Other Signs of Trouble
Although sweat during exercise is normal, nausea and breaking into a cold sweat are warning signs of a possible problem. Some people who have experienced heart attacks have reported a sense of foreboding or impending doom.
What to Do
When it comes to dealing with a possible heart problem, timing is critical. Every second counts. Don’t take a wait-and-see approach or try to push through your workout. If you think you might be experiencing any of the warning signs above, seek medical help. The AHA advises waiting no more than a few minutes—five minutes at most—to call 9-1-1. Your heart may stop beating during a heart attack and emergency personnel have the knowledge and equipment needed to get it beating again.
If you’re experiencing possible heart attack symptoms and can’t call 9-1-1, have someone else drive you to the hospital immediately. Avoid getting behind the wheel yourself unless there are no other options.
If you find yourself in the emergency room after experiencing troubling symptoms during exercise, be prepared to answer the following questions:
- What time did your discomfort or pain begin?
- What were you doing when your discomfort or pain began?
- Was it at its most intense level immediately, or did it gradually build to a peak?
- Did you notice any additional symptoms in association with the discomfort, such as nausea, sweating, lightheadedness, or palpitations?
- On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst, what number would you use to describe your discomfort at this time?
Answering these questions to the best of your ability will help your medical team provide you with the best possible care and might help save your life.