Exercise and heart health: A guide for patients with arrhythmias

Heart Health
Person running on a treadmill at the gym.

Taking care of your heart is crucial, especially when diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia, a condition where your heart dances to its own beat — it might beat too slowly, too rapidly or have an unpredictable rhythm. This irregularity is due to a little mix-up in the electrical signals that keep your heartbeats in sync. 

So, you may be wondering if exercise, typically known for its heart-boosting benefits, is safe if you have an arrhythmia. 

“The good news is, with the right precautions and approach, physical activity can play a supportive role in managing and improving heart health, even for those with arrhythmia,” says Doug Esberg, MD, the director of cardiac electrophysiology at Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health. 

The benefits of exercise for arrhythmia patients

Regular physical activity, when performed safely, provides a variety of heart-healthy benefits that could significantly help manage your arrhythmia.

“For starters, exercise helps strengthen the heart muscle, making it more efficient at pumping blood throughout the body,” says Dr. Esberg. “This increased efficiency can lead to improved circulation, helping your body's cells receive the oxygen and nutrients they need to function effectively.”

Physical activity also helps you maintain a healthy weight. This is important because excess weight can put additional strain on the heart, potentially triggering or exacerbating arrhythmia. In addition, regular exercise aids in controlling other factors linked to heart health, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

But the benefits of exercise extend beyond the physical. It's also great for managing stress and anxiety, which can affect your heart's rhythm, potentially leading to arrhythmia episodes. Exercise also provides a sense of empowerment, enabling you to take an active role in managing your condition. It can boost your confidence, enhance your mood and improve your overall quality of life.

Common misconceptions about exercising with arrhythmia 

Navigating the world of fitness with an arrhythmia can often lead to encountering a few myths and misconceptions. One such myth is the belief that exercise can trigger an arrhythmia episode, causing many to shy away from physical activity. While it's true that some high-intensity workouts can potentially be a risk, moderate exercise is generally safe and beneficial.

“Another misconception is that those with arrhythmia should skip exercise altogether. In reality, it's crucial to strike the right balance,” says Dr. Esberg. “Low intensity exercises like walking and yoga are great starting points, and with guidance from your doctor so is progressing to moderate exercises like brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling.”

With your doctor's approval and guidance, you can start exercising safely, gradually improving your fitness level and working towards a healthier heart. Always remember, the key is to start slow, listen to your body and seek expert advice when you need to.

Recommended exercises for patients with arrhythmia

Generally, low-impact activities are your best bet. These can include taking leisurely walks, engaging in gentle cycling or even swimming. You might also find value in mind-body exercises like yoga and tai chi. These practices not only improve physical fitness but also encourage deep breathing and relaxation which can enhance circulation and calm your nervous system. Each of these activities can be modified to suit your individual comfort and fitness level. 

“As always, consult with your health care provider or a cardiac rehabilitation specialist before beginning any new exercise regimen,” says Dr. Esberg. “They can provide personalized guidance and ensure your chosen activities are safe and suitable for your specific needs and condition.”

Remember, the goal is not about breaking records or pushing your limits. It's about finding an enjoyable activity that you can perform consistently, which contributes positively to your heart health and overall wellbeing.

Safety precautions when exercising

As you engage in your exercise regimen, keep an eye out for any unusual signs. “If you experience breathlessness, dizziness, fainting or nausea, you should immediately stop your activity and rest,” says Dr. Esberg.

Other symptoms you should watch for during exercise include any of the following that are out of proportion to what you get with normal exercise: 

  • High heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Muscular discomfort 
  • Pinpoint pain during or after exercise

If you experience chest, arm, neck or jaw discomfort or pain during or after exercise, it could indicate serious health issues that may require immediate medical attention. Ignoring these symptoms while continuing to exercise could worsen your condition, so it's crucial to seek medical attention if you experience any of the above symptoms during or after exercising.

Monitoring your heart's rhythm and rate is crucial for managing heart health. Using a heart rate monitor during exercise can also be beneficial and help you stay within a safe exercise intensity or spot any unusual patterns. 

Regular check-ups with your doctor can help keep track of your condition, adjust treatment plans and provide peace of mind and control. And, if you have a heart condition and aren’t sure where to start with maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle, consult your cardiologist. 

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Doug Esberg, MD
Learn more about cardiac rehab
Should you get an at-home blood pressure monitor?