When you’ve experienced the irregular beating of your heart from atrial fibrillation (AFib), you may feel unsure about revving up your heart rate with exercise. Take comfort from the experts. They say physical activity is usually good for people with AFib, but it’s still wise to take precautions.
Before you start exercising, ask your cardiologist if you need any tests. Doctors clear many people with heart conditions to start exercising right away. It's possible, though, that you have problems that need treatment first.
Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib, happens when your normal heart beat or rhythm is changed and may not be able to pump enough blood. About 1% of Americans have AFib.
Millions of people with long-lasting AFib live quite well, said Gordon F. Tomaselli, MD, director of the Division of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a past president of the American Heart Association. "It's very possible to live a normal life for many years."
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Your cardiologist may also suggest a cardiac rehabilitation program. Rehabilitation specialists help you develop a custom exercise program, look out for any problems, and help you identify when it’s safe to push yourself.
Once your doctor gives you the OK, ask if there are other specific tips to help keep you exercising safely.
Build up gradually. If you have AFib, jumping into exercise too quickly -- with high intensity or long workouts -- could cause symptoms. Instead, start slowly with 5 to 10 minutes a day of walking. Add a minute or two each week or so. Your ultimate goal is to exercise aerobically 30 minutes a day 5 days a week.
Check your pulse. Ask your doctor what your heart rate should be while you're exercising and after you've cooled down. Get their advice on what to do if your pulse is too low – should you exercise longer or push yourself harder? If your pulse is too high, you're more likely to have symptoms. Ask your doctor what to do to bring it down.
Watch for symptoms. If exercise triggers pain, extreme breathlessness, or exhaustion -- stop. Talk to your doctor before you work out again. You may need tests to make sure you don’t have a new problem.
"Aside from the heart benefits, once you add exercise into your life, you'll really feel better," Gordon Tomaselli, MD, chief of cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says. "Regular exercise helps people get more out of life."