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Experts say exercise can change the structure of your heart, which can increase your risk of arrhythmias.
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  • New research from the United Kingdom finds that people who engage in sports are at increased risk of atrial fibrillation (AFib).
  • The researchers found that those who practice mixed sports like rugby or soccer experienced the greatest risk.
  • Experts say exercise can change the structure of your heart, which can increase your risk of arrhythmias.
  • If you want to change your exercise routine, experts say it’s best to talk with your physician about potential risks.

Athletes might be at a significantly higher risk of a heart condition that increases their risk of stroke, according to new research published today in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is an arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat and is associated with an increased risk of a variety of health issues, including stroke.

While AFib is often associated with older adults and weaker cardiovascular systems, a new study finds that young and seemingly healthy athletes may also be at increased risk.

U.K. researchers, led by a team at Canterbury Christ Church University in Canterbury, England, reviewed existing studies to explore if the type of sport an athlete practiced had an impact on their AFib risk.

The researchers reviewed and analyzed 13 relevant studies published between 1990 and December 2020 that looked at athletes who took part in sports including cycling, running, swimming, Nordic skiing, orienteering, rowing, and soccer.

These studies included data on 70,478 participants, which included 63,662 controls and 6,816 athletes.

The findings suggest that the risk of AFib was 2.46 times higher among athletes than non-athletes — with athletes taking part in mixed sports, rather than endurance sports, experiencing a greater risk of AFib.

When researchers separated the studies into those involving participants with or without existing conditions such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, they found no significant difference in relative risk of AFib between athletes and non-athletes with these risk factors.

However, when they looked at athletes and non-athletes without cardiovascular disease risk factors, athletes had a 3.7 times higher relative risk of AFib than non-athletes.

The researchers also found that athletes younger than age 55 had a much higher risk of AFib than athletes age 55 and older. But older athletes were 76 percent more likely to have this condition than non-athletes.

According to the study’s authors, this research had certain limitations, such as the fact that it analyzed different studies that had their own methodologies.

There was also limited data on female athletes, which made it difficult to look at the relative risk of AFib by sex.

Regardless, the study’s authors concluded, “Athletes have a significantly greater likelihood of developing atrial fibrillation compared with non-athlete controls.”

Michael Goyfman, MD, director of clinical cardiology at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in New York, told Healthline that AFib occurs most commonly in older adults and that arrhythmia itself is not directly life threatening, but the problem is that it can lead to stroke.

“What happens in atrial fibrillation is that the top part of the heart beats irregularly — it quivers,” explained Goyfman. “The blood doesn’t circulate as well in the chamber, and when the blood doesn’t circulate well, it can coagulate and form a blood clot.”

The problem then, he continued, is if a blood clot forms in the heart, it can break off and travel to the brain to cause a stroke and travel to other parts of the body and cause other problems.

“Generally speaking, we give blood thinners to these patients to decrease the risk of these clots forming.”

Goyfman said this research doesn’t show that exercise actually causes AFib, just that there is a correlation.

“I’m not sure how accurate this actually is,” said Goyfman. “The problem is all these sets of trials, [including] the ones that were published…it’s like a cohort study of this information; it’s a retrospective or self-reported, so the study definitely finds some correlation, but you can’t actually infer any causation.”

Laurence M. Epstein, MD, system director of electrophysiology at Northwell Health’s Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, New York, explained that when it comes to exercise — more isn’t always better.

According to Epstein, beyond a certain point, exercising can cause more harm than good. He pointed out that people who compete in long-distance bicycle races are particularly susceptible to AFib.

One 2009 study found that elite endurance athletes can have a five times higher risk of AFib than the general population. Epstein said he was concerned that the U.K. study did not find an increased risk for bicyclists and AFib risk.

“It’s known that people who practice long-duration athletic activities like triathlons and bicycle races have an increased incidence of AFib,” said Epstein.

According to Goyfman, medical experts have some theories about why exercise may increase your risk of AFib, although they have not yet been proven.

He said exercise can change the structure of the heart since it makes certain chambers a little larger. If the structure changes, then there is an increased risk of arrhythmias and AFib.

He also said an increase in certain hormones may also increase the risk of AFib.

Epstein emphasized that AFib is “multifactorial,” meaning there are different causes — whether it’s genetic, or due to high blood pressure, obesity, or type 2 diabetes.

“The AFib [that] a senior with various health conditions experiences will be different than that experienced by someone younger with a genetic predisposition to the condition,” he said.

Goyfman emphasized that you always have to do a “risk-benefit analysis” and to talk with a physician before drastically changing your workout routines.

“Some patients are actually very low risk,” he said. “So for those patients, the risk of having AFib isn’t really a big deal, and so before any person would think about changing their exercise regimen, I’d recommend they speak to a cardiologist to discuss what are the risks and benefits.”

New research from the United Kingdom finds that people who engage in high-level sports are at increased risk of atrial fibrillation, AFib. Those who practice mixed sports like rugby or soccer experience the greatest risk.

Experts say the study was based on limited data, and while it finds a correlation — there is no cause of AFib identified by researchers.

Experts say you should speak with a physician or healthcare professional before drastically modifying your workout routine.