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Can exercise lead to atrial fibrillation?

Researchers discuss the connection between exercise and atrial fibrillation, and the implications on physical activity recommendations.

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular, often rapid, heartbeat that can increase the risk of stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related problems. Symptoms of atrial fibrillation may include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and weakness. However, many people with atrial fibrillation experience no symptoms.

Commonly caused by high blood pressure and heart disease, atrial fibrillation is often linked to being overweight or obese. Physical exercise is known to lower blood pressure and aid in weight loss, so regular exercise is recommended for both healthy patients and those with high blood pressure. However, some studies show that exercise may actually increase the risk of atrial fibrillation.

Does the type of exercise matter?

So, is exercise dangerous for our health? Experts say no, and that the cardiovascular and health benefits of exercise are unquestionable. However, the connection between exercise and atrial fibrillation is complex. Some experts believe that strenuous activity may trigger the development of atrial fibrillation. Researchers from Italy recently discussed the available evidence and the clinical implications in an article published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

Multiple studies confirm the role of endurance exercise in atrial fibrillation. Estimates from one study suggest that endurance athletes are about five times more likely to develop atrial fibrillation compared to the general population. Another study reported that the number of hours of vigorous activity accumulated over a lifetime is a strong predictor of atrial fibrillation. Researchers observed the highest atrial fibrillation risk in individuals who participated in “vigorous endurance sports practice” with more than 2,000 hours of exercise over their lifetimes.

Researchers believe that the higher risk of atrial fibrillation in endurance athletes is due to structural and functional changes in the heart. These changes, while helpful for tough physical competitions, may predispose the heart to irregular heartbeats.

Moderate exercise may prevent arteries from stiffening

For the average person, this means that light to moderate exercise protects the heart against atrial fibrillation. Researchers still don’t understand exactly why this is true but suggest that moderate exercise improves heart function and prevents the arteries from stiffening. Experts say that more studies are needed to understand the protective mechanisms of exercise against atrial fibrillation.

Written by Cindi A. Hoover, Ph.D.

Reference: Seccia TM and Calò LA. Is exercise becoming a danger for our health? The complex relationship between exercise and atrial fibrillation. 2018. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology 25(6) 621-623.

Cindi Hoover PhD
Cindi Hoover PhD
Cindi has a Ph.D. in Marine Science from the University of Delaware and a B.S. in Biology from the College of William and Mary. Her research focused on the genetics and molecular biology of corals. Cindi gained scientific writing experience through her many years of work in genomics and molecular biology laboratories. She is excited to contribute to Medical News Bulletin and to help others learn about cutting-edge scientific research. In her free time, Cindi enjoys hanging out with her family, swimming, hiking, and photography.
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