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Atrial Fibrillation Health Center

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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

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Serena Gordon

HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Jan. 10 (HealthDay News) -- Cutting back on exercise, or stopping altogether, might seem like the right move for people whose heart beats too fast and erratically, a condition called atrial fibrillation. But that's not necessarily so.

In fact, staying active -- biking, swimming, perhaps even playing pickup basketball, for instance -- might be just what the doctor ordered.

The key, heart experts say, is to make sure the heart rate doesn't go above a certain level, or that exercise doesn't trigger an uncontrolled heart rhythm.

"There's a very common misunderstanding that a lack of exercise can help prevent heart rhythm problems, and that's not true for the far majority of people," said Dr. Emile Daoud, a cardiologist and chief of the cardiac electrophysiology section at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.

"If you have atrial fibrillation, don't presume that you shouldn't exercise," Daoud said. "Ask your doctor what's safe for you. Some people with atrial fibrillation have other cardiovascular issues that might limit exercise, but for most people, moderate amounts of exercise probably help."

The heart has its own electrical system that controls the rate and rhythm of the heartbeat. "If you have atrial fibrillation, it means that the pacemaker God gave you isn't exactly working the way it's supposed to," said Dr. Jerry Insel, chief of cardiology at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore.

Normally, the electrical signal travels from the atria at the top of the heart to the ventricles at the bottom of the heart. If this electrical system malfunctions, the heart doesn't beat properly, and can't pump blood to the rest of the body efficiently, according to the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

In atrial fibrillation, the atria and the ventricles pump at different rates, which can allow blood to pool, increasing the risk for blood clots. That puts people with atrial fibrillation at an increased risk for stroke, often necessitating blood-thinning medications to keep clots from forming when the heart is beating irregularly.

People with atrial fibrillation may also take medication to control their heart rate. And, if that isn't enough to restore a normal heart rhythm, doctors may opt to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm with electrical cardioversion.

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