Exercising with Atrial Fibrillation

Just because you’re diagnosed with AFib, doesn’t mean your commitment to living a healthy and active lifestyle should slow down. Get helpful tips for how to exercise with AFib and discover a program that will work best for you.

Exercise is key to living with AFib

Atrial fibrillation shouldn’t stop you from pursuing a healthy, active lifestyle. In fact, atrial fibrillation patients can reap many benefits by pursuing an exercise program. Exercise can reduce the frequency and severity of AFib episodes in addition to lowering blood pressure and slowing your resting heart rate.

Of course, none of this means you should launch yourself into running a marathon after years of sedentary living. You need to be careful as you design your exercise program.

Before you exercise, know what type of AFib you have

There are four types of AFib: persistent, paroxysmal, vagal, and adrenergic. Knowing which one you have affects how you should approach your exercise routine.

1. Persistent AFib
patients are nearly always in AFib. Since it’s usually best to exercise when one is not suffering from an episode, these patients will need to be especially careful to stick to gentle, low-impact programs.

2. Paroxysmal AFib
patients have episodes that come and go. Within reason, they can pursue just about any program they like, if they don’t overdo it.

3. Vagal AFib
is when your episodes occur mostly during or after a meal or resting after exercise. This type of atrial fibrillation is related to the vagus nerve. For some people with this type of AFib, exercise can actually help stop the episodes.

4. Adrenergic AFib
is when your episodes occur mostly during the day and are normally triggered by exercise, exertion, or stimulants. In this type of AFib, the adrenaline hormone is the trigger. For some people with this type of AFib, exercise can trigger an episode.

How to choose the right exercise program for you

It’s important to start by focusing on light-to-moderate programs like brisk walking, Tai Chi, or yoga. Make sure you don’t get above 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. Calculate this by subtracting your age from the number 220. If you’re 40 years old your maximum heart rate is 180 and you don’t want to get above 126 bpm.

If you’re on beta-blockers you might have to use the Borg RPE scale as an alternative, since beta-blockers exist to keep your heart rate low. The Borg scale is a measure of “perceived exertion.” The CDC offers a lot of information about it, but here’s the bottom line: you should aim to keep your perceived exertion somewhere between 11 and 14 on a 1-20 scale while you work out.

Avoid weight lifting because it can put a great deal of strain on your heart. Strength training is important, but resistance band training is safer and more effective for AFib patients.

Tips for a more successful exercise experience

Be vigilant about taking care of yourself during your exercise time. This means setting realistic goals, staying hydrated, and watching for signs you may be overdoing it such as dizziness. If you’ve been sedentary for a long time, start out slow. Pay attention to weather conditions: the last thing you want to do is overheat.

Think about personal safety, too. If you’re on blood thinners, for example, a major exercising accident could be very dangerous. Wear protective gear and take precautions to ensure you can get help if you have an injury that makes you bleed.

Beware of overdoing your exercise

Pushing too hard is the number one reason why exercise may become unsafe for someone with atrial fibrillation. Don’t rely on monitoring methods or Borg scales alone. If you can’t speak a full sentence without gasping for air, then you are overdoing it. Lightheadedness, excessive sweating, and chest pains are other danger signs.

You might feel like you’re “accomplishing more” when you start to push harder, but remember: even if you don’t trigger an episode your body will hit a wall. If you start associating exercise with pain and discomfort you won’t want to do it, and the least effective exercise is the one you never get around to doing at all.

Keep exercise fun so you’ll want to do it…and don’t let AFib stop you from getting out there and getting active.

Author byline:

Travis Van Slooten is an atrial fibrillation patient who has been passionate about providing knowledge, inspiration, and support to fellow afibbers through his blog at www.livingwithatrialfibrillation.com