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Experts say an increase in exercise is one of the lifestyle choices that can reduce the risk of an AFib reoccurrence. Getty Images
  • New research reveals that two lifestyle choices can benefit people who have experienced atrial fibrillation (AFib).
  • Researchers in one study concluded that any amount of alcohol can increase the risk of an AFib reoccurrence.
  • Researchers in another study say 3 hours or more of exercise a week can decrease the risk of an AFib repeat episode.

People who have experienced atrial fibrillation (AFib) in the past may want to consider giving up alcohol and taking up more aerobic activity to decrease their chances of a reoccurrence.

That’s according to two studies published this past week.

One study published today on alcohol use goes against the former belief that only excessive alcohol use increased risk of a repeat incident of AFib.

A study on exercise and AFib unveiled last week is the first of its kind to show that regular aerobic activities decreased the risk of an AFib incident.

Experts say that both studies can better inform medical professionals, as well as people with AFib, on lifestyle choices.

For years, medical experts reported that chances of AFib reoccurrences only increased when alcohol was used in excess, according to Dr. Gregory Marcus, MAS, a lead author of the new study, as well as professor of medicine and cardiac electrophysiologist at the University of California San Francisco.

“We were somewhat surprised that we could detect (an increased chance of reoccurrence) with just one drink,” Marcus told Healthline. “This is the first objective evidence that alcohol has an immediate impact.”

Marcus and his team took on the study after hearing from people that they were experiencing AFib after just 1 drink from time to time.

Now, he said, medical professionals can use this information to guide people with AFib to move away from using any amount of alcohol.

“I’d like to think that we can save lives with this information,” Marcus said. “At a minimum, we can avoid (dangerous) situations.”

The study looked at how alcohol use impacted AFib by using technology.

Marcus said the use of an electrocardiogram monitor to record the time and length of each episode of AFib, and an ankle monitor to passively record their alcohol consumption, made the study particularly meaningful since there was little to no human error in reporting alcohol use.

Researchers studied 100 adults with intermittent AFib who drank an average of 1 drink per month to determine if drinking alcohol increased their risks.

They found that among the 56 participants who had an episode of AFib, it was about twice as likely that they had had alcohol in the immediate 4 hours before the episode. The association was slightly higher with more drinks and with a 6-hour time frame, but it decreased with longer time frames.

This information is important, Marcus said, because alcohol is the most broadly used substance in the world — and the incidences of AFib are expected to climb exponentially over the coming decades.

Dr. Deepak Bhatt, MPH, the executive director of Interventional Cardiovascular Programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Heart & Vascular Center in Boston, said the alcohol study information is valuable.

“This is an extremely insightful study of patients with a history of atrial fibrillation, the most common heart arrhythmia, that answers a long-standing question — can a single drink of alcohol precipitate atrial fibrillation? And the answer is a definitive yes,” he told Healthline.

“This is useful, actionable information for patients who are trying to do everything possible to avoid bouts of atrial fibrillation,” he stressed. “Avoid alcohol if you want to decrease your risks of atrial fibrillation, and even just one drink can do it.”

Marcus said the study may also upend another long-held belief: that moderate use of alcohol is good for heart health.

“Despite the common perception that alcohol is healthy for the heart, this and other studies demonstrate that it can be harmful,” he said.

The ACTIVE-AF exercise study was conducted by Adrian Elliott, PhD, of the University of Adelaide, Australia, and was presented at last week’s 2021 European Society of Cardiology meeting.

It hasn’t been peer-reviewed or published yet.

The research backs up the long-held belief that exercise helps reduce the risk of AFib. It also reports that an increased aerobic exercise plan in place for a year decreased chances of a repeat incident.

While exercise therapy has long been used to treat coronary heart disease and heart failure, this study is believed to be the first research looking at how it impacts AFib.

In it, researchers placed 120 people with previous AFib history in a 6-month exercise program, giving them a choice between walking, swimming, or indoor cycling. The participants gradually built up to 3 1/2 hours of exercise per week.

A year into the program, AFib reoccurrence for those who exercised was 60 percent. For those who did not, it was 80 percent.

Elliot said in a press release that the trial proved something he had already suspected.

“The ACTIVE-AF trial demonstrates that some patients can control their arrhythmia through physical activity, without the need for complex interventions such as ablation or medications to keep their heart in normal rhythm,” he said.

Bhatt said the information is important and could help ease fears some people have about exercise after an AFib occurrence.

“Sometimes, patients with a history of atrial fibrillation are afraid to exercise, but this study provides reassurance that they can and, in fact, should,” he said. “So, like for most things in cardiovascular medicine, exercise is good for you.”

Overall, Marcus noted, the news is positive for people with AFib because it provides solutions.

“Many behaviors can bring measurable change. That’s good news,” he said.