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How Active Can I Be With AFib?

You probably have questions about how atrial fibrillation (AFib) will affect your day-to-day life. Some people fear that exercising, having sex or engaging in physical tasks at home or at work might trigger an AFib episode or hurt their heart.

The good news is that, in general, it’s perfectly safeand beneficialto stay physically active while living with AFib. But everyone’s different, so talk with your doctor about finding the right level of activity for you.

Studies show that compared with people with AFib who do not exercise, those who do:

  • Have fewer AFib episodes
  • Go to the hospital less often
  • Report a better quality of life
One recent study found that people with AFib who exercised regularly had a significantly lower risk of death from cardiovascular causes. This finding held true even after researchers took into account gender, age and stroke risk.

“Patients often tell me that they plan on stopping certain activities because they’re worried they’re going to hurt their heart. But the health benefits of exercise are clear, both in preventing coronary artery disease and helping them live longer.”

Jordan Prutkin, MD, MHS, associate director, University of Washington Center for Sports Cardiology

People with AFib often worry about whether they can continue:

  • Exercising (swimming, jogging and brisk walking)
  • Having sex
  • Driving
  • Caring for young kids

Don’t skimp on staying active. Talk with your doctor about what’s best for you.

Regular physical activity can help you:

Strengthen your heart. When you exercise, your heart works harder, your blood vessels open and how well your blood moves throughout your body improves. This helps protect against other heart conditions, such as heart failure, that can develop in people with AFib.

Lose weight. Studies s how that losing weight can help ease symptoms and episodes of AFib in some people. Coupled with a heart-healthy eating plan, being physically active can help you shed extra pounds.

Reduce stress. Stress makes AFib worse. Exercise is a natural stress-buster, so find the time to get moving each day, whether at home, at work or at the gym. Embrace finding your inner calm. Activities focused on deep breathing, such as yoga, have been shown to be particularly beneficial for stress reduction.

Feel better. Moving your body boosts feel-good hormones and tends to set you on the right path to make healthy food choices. Regular exercise can help you sleep better and even improve your sex drive.

AFib affects millions of people, and not every rule applies to every person. Your doctor will help you decide what activity level you should target. This goal will depend on factors such as:

  • Your physical condition and your pre-AFib level of activity
  • Other health conditions you have
  • Medicine you are taking
  • Previous surgeries, procedures or devices you have

Keep in mind that certain medications can lower your normal heart rate, so using standard targets set on elliptical machines, treadmills and other exercise equipment may not be accurate for you. Also, these machines, as well as wrist-worn devices don’t always give an accurate reading. Experts say it’s best to use a chest strap, which is similar to an ECG.

If you take a blood thinner, remember these can make bleeding or bruising more likely. You may need to avoid some activities. Also, you should always use protective gear such as a bike helmet, regardless of the law in your state.

Ask your doctor what amount and types of physical activity are safe for you. Start by describing what your fitness level and exercise routines were before you learned you had AFib. Then, you may want to ask the following questions:

  • How much exercise should I get each week?
  • What level of exertion is OK?
  • Which types of exercises are right for me? Are there activities I should avoid?
  • Are there activities that might trigger episodes of AFib? If so, what are they?
  • What symptoms should I watch for during exercise?
  • Is it OK to have sex? (Learn more about arrhythmias and sexual activity.)
  • What should my target heart rate be, and will my medications affect my heart rate during exercise?
  • How much water should I drink while exercising?
  • What about driving or operating heavy machinery?

If you have certain risk factors or other types of heart disease, your doctor may want you to take an exercise stress test before starting a new exercise routine. (Learn more about exercise electrocardiogram.)

  • Last Edited 09/30/2017

Living CardioSmart

Roxanne Watson is CardioSmart