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How Exercise Helps Atrial Fibrillation

By Maureen Salamon

Updated November 01, 2008

(LifeWire) - Atrial fibrillation (AF), a rapid, irregular heartbeat affecting 9% of Americans over age 60, can make day-to-day activities difficult. But  studies show this debilitating condition can be prevented in some older people by walking or engaging in other light to moderate exercise.

While not life-threatening on its own, AF does increase the risk of experiencing major complications such as stroke or heart attack. The leading type of cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, AF occurs when the heart's two top chambers (the atria) contract improperly and can cause blood to back up into the heart, possibly leading to clot formation.

The irregular heartbeat causes a myriad of symptoms, including a racing pulse, dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating or feeling unable to exert oneself in exercise. But exercise, ironically, may be one of the best ways to prevent it.

A 2008 study in the journal Circulation showed a dramatic difference in AF incidence among senior citizens who maintain a light to moderate walking regimen or leisure-time activity. AF is most common among the elderly. From more than 5,400 adults studied, AF incidence was 22% lower in those who walked 5 to 11 blocks per week, a risk that was lowered by 44% among those who walked 60 or more blocks per week (roughly 3 miles).

AF treatment aims to prevent blood clots from forming and to control heart rate within a normal range. Resources include medication, surgery or a procedure known as cardioversion, which can shock the heart back into normal rhythm with electrical impulses. Scientists believe light exercise works as a form of preventive self-cardioversion by helping the heart maintain a normal rate.

A retrospective study of 942 people in the European Heart Journal indicates that exercise is not as effective among AF patients already experiencing heart failure symptoms. Certain people are predisposed to AF, including those who have existing heart disease, such as heart failure, previous heart attack, valve disease or recent heart surgery. Men are more likely to have AF, although women have a higher, long-term risk of complications causing premature death.


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LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Maureen Salamon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer who has written for newspapers, websites and hospitals.

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