A-Fib Doesn't Mean You're Banished to the Sidelines
For most people with an irregular heartbeat, it's OK to stay active, doctors say
Some people have short, infrequent episodes of atrial fibrillation, while others have persistent a-fib. Even those with persistent atrial fibrillation, however, may be able to exercise without a problem, Insel said.
Both doctors said that the decision on whether someone with atrial fibrillation can exercise, though, has to be made on an individual basis, based on the type of atrial fibrillation they have and their body's response to exercise.
"Exercise can be an issue for some people," Insel said. "With aerobic activity, the heart rate can go up a lot faster. With resistance exercise, it may go slower," he explained.
"It's hard to predict what someone's initial response to exercise will be, so I tell my patients to take it slow," Insel said. "Start with walking -- walking in the house or in the mall -- to see what happens with the heart rate. If it goes up above 150 to 160, we may need to prescribe medication."
But overall, Daoud said, "once we know that the heart muscle is good, and it's just an electrical problem, we try to encourage people to return to as normal a lifestyle as possible."
And, Daoud added, "Like everything else in life, moderation is important. For the average person who likes to exercise 45 minutes to an hour in the gym or playing tennis, that type of exercise probably won't promote a-fib. If you like tennis, go out and play tennis, enjoy. If you have an episode of a-fib while playing, stop and rest for a bit. If you have another episode while you're playing, stop and don't exercise for the rest of the day."
But that doesn't mean that exercise is out altogether. "It's important to note that telling people not to exercise won't stop a-fib from happening," Daoud said.
In fact, Daoud said there are very few activities he considers off-limits for people with atrial fibrillation. His only rule: "Nothing that makes you grunt," he said, which means heavy weight-lifting is out. But walking, golf, tennis, swimming, biking, even team sports like soccer or basketball may be OK, he said.
The bottom line, according to Insel, is that "the risk factors that contribute to atrial fibrillation are only helped by activity, so work out a plan with your physician on how to stay active safely."