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Exercise May Guard Against Irregular Heartbeat

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Dennis Thompson

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 20, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Regular exercise may help older women avoid a condition that causes a life-threatening irregular heartbeat, a new study shows.

Physically active postmenopausal women had a 10 percent lower risk of developing atrial fibrillation, compared to women who were more sedentary, researchers report in the Aug. 20 issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Active women enjoyed this protection against the heart rhythm disorder even if they were obese, the study found. Obesity is an important risk factor for atrial fibrillation.

"We pretty clearly show that in this older population, the more they exercised, they less likely they were to develop atrial fibrillation -- and the obese women were the ones who benefited most from this exercise," said study author Dr. Marco Perez, director of the Inherited Arrhythmia Clinic at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California.

This study should clear up concerns that physical exercise might contribute to atrial fibrillation, said Perez and Dr. Gordon Tomaselli, a professor of cardiology at Johns Hopkins Medical School and a spokesman for the American Heart Association.

"The older population is much more vulnerable, and there has been a question in our field whether we should be recommending more exercise in these older folks," Perez said.

Atrial fibrillation is an electrical disorder of the heart that causes it to beat in a rapid and disorganized way. The condition increases a person's risk of stroke and heart failure.

Some studies have shown that elite athletes may develop atrial fibrillation as a result of their regular strenuous efforts. Those findings caused doctors to wonder if exercise might be bad for regular folks at risk for the condition, Tomaselli explained.

"This study shows that moving, keeping a body in motion, is a good thing even if you have risk factors for heart disease," he said. "You can't use atrial fibrillation as an excuse for not being physically active, if you're an average guy or gal."

About 1.1 million U.S. women currently have atrial fibrillation, and prevalence of the disorder is expected to increase 2.5-fold during the next 50 years, researchers said in background information.

This study involved more than 80,000 participants with the Women's Health Initiative, an observational health study involving women aged 50 to 79. Observational studies can only show if there is an association between factors and cannot prove cause-and-effect relationships.

At the start of the study, researchers asked the women how often they walked outside for more than 10 minutes daily or how often they engaged in physical activity hard enough to sweat.

After 11 years, the researchers found that the most physically active women had a 10 percent lower risk of developing atrial fibrillation compared to those who didn't walk outside for 10 minutes at least once each week.

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