Signs of Heart Problems During Exercise

Written by Robin Madell and Kristeen Cherney | Published on May 5, 2015
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on May 5, 2015

Learn the signs of heart problems during exercise, including: chest discomfort, shortness of breath, dizziness, and light-headedness.

Overview

A sedentary lifestyle is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. According to the World Heart Federation, lack of exercise can increase your risk for heart disease by 50 percent. Other risk factors include:

  • diet high in saturated fat
  • type 2 diabetes
  • high blood pressure or hypertension
  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • obesity
  • family history of heart disease

Reducing these risk factors can decrease your chances of heart attack or stroke and your need for heart-related medical procedures, including bypass surgery.

Staying active is a great way to reduce your risk for heart disease. Regular, aerobic exercise such as walking has been proven to improve heart health. It can even reverse some risk factors for cardiovascular disease by helping with weight loss and lowering blood pressure.

However, exercise can sometimes increase the risk of a heart attack, especially in those who have heart disease and aren’t monitoring their activity properly.

Learn more about the signs of heart problems during a workout and what you can do to prevent and treat them.

Why You Should Take Precautions

Exercise is vital in helping to prevent heart disease. It’s generally safe for most people, but you should take precautions, especially if:

  • your doctor has told you that you have one or more of the risk factors for heart disease
  • you’ve recently experienced a heart attack or other heart problem
  • you’ve been inactive previously

People with heart disease can almost always exercise safely if they’re evaluated beforehand. However, exercise isn’t appropriate for all people with heart disease. If you’re new to exercise, the key is to start off slow to prevent adverse effects. Talk to your doctor before beginning a new exercise program. You also may need to begin your workout under medical supervision.

Despite these precautions, 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. Seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms.

Chest Discomfort

Many people associate sudden and intense chest pain with heart attack. Some heart attacks may begin this way. But many begin with a feeling of mild discomfort, uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or fullness in the center of the chest. The pain can be subtle and may come and go, so it can be difficult to tell what’s wrong. Stop exercising and seek medical attention if this symptom lasts for more than a few minutes.

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.

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. Seek medical attention if you observe any unusual heart rhythms during your workout.

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 the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach. You might also experience discomfort radiating from one part of your body to another, such as from your chest, jaw, or neck into your shoulder, arm, or back.

Unusual Sweating

Although sweating 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.

Call 911

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. Seek medical help if you think you might be experiencing any of the warning signs above.

The American Heart Association advises waiting no more than a few minutes — five minutes at most — to call 911. Your heart may stop beating during a heart attack. Emergency personnel have the knowledge and equipment needed to get it beating again.  

Have someone else drive you to the hospital immediately if you’re experiencing heart attack symptoms and can’t call 911. Avoid getting behind the wheel yourself unless there are no other options.

Be Prepared

Be prepared to answer the following questions if you find yourself in the emergency room after experiencing troubling symptoms during exercise:

  • What time did your discomfort or pain begin?
  • What were you doing when your discomfort or pain began?
  • Was the pain 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, which could save your life.

Outlook

About 600,000 Americans die from heart disease every year. Exercise is one way to fight this statistic, but it’s important to do so with care. It can be beneficial to use a heart rate monitor when you exercise  aim for 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. Be sure to report any warning signs of heart problems during a workout. 

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