Personal Health

The benefits of exercise with atrial fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation

(This article first appeared in The Irish Times here.)

Can I actually get fitter with Atrial Fibrillation or is it a pipe dream?

Sean is a 72 year old patient living with atrial fibrillation for the last 12 years. He has had two ablation surgeries and multiple cardioversions to medically manage his condition. Unfortunately these surgical interventions have not been as successful as hoped. So Sean is now in a permanent state of Atrial Fibrillation. His heart medications include a blood thinner to reduce risk of stroke. He is also taking a beta blocker to manage his heart rate. Even though he is medically stable and living his life as normal, Sean is constantly fatigued, fears further deterioration in quality of life and really wants to keep playing golf. He would also like to be around to see his 10 year old granddaughter graduate from senior school, but isn’t sure if that’s realistic. And to top it all off he has a very sore, arthritic knee!

Sean should most definitely be exercising for his atrial fibrillation

One of the biggest exercise related challenges for patients living with heart problems is fear. There is a genuine fear that exertion is unsafe and will cause serious if not catastrophic issues. Very often when cardiology patients become breathless they will assume the activity is above and beyond the scope of their capability. Apparently simple tasks (at least they used to be) like walking up the stairs or a gentle incline can lead to some really dejected thinking. This fear leads to avoidance of exertion. And the patient invariably ends up settling on the idea that going for an even slower, more gentle walk is best. The longer the avoidance of activity lasts the more difficult the walk becomes. And what once was a straight forward ramble with friends now sees Sean getting left behind – out of puff – much to his chagrin. Sean then has to deal with missing out on the craic with his friends on the golf course or even abandoning the Wednesday night ramble.

Is there one simple thing Sean can do?

Exercise will absolutely not cure Atrial Fibrillation. However there are many types of exercise that Sean can do to reduce the impact and severity of the condition. One of the most obvious and effective options is strength training (when Sean is presented with the notion of lifting weights he is aghast). However Sean will routinely lug a 5-6kg golf bag into the boot of his car. Sean is already a ‘weightlifter’.So, simple squats with a light hand held dumbbell (5-6kg x 6-8reps) can increase leg strength for Sean. When peripheral soft tissue structures (in this case leg muscles) strengthen they put far less demand on the heart. A strong pair of legs will begin to ‘self manage’ exertion without asking the heart for assistance! And hence the heart is under less demand. Strength training can also significantly offset some of the challenges with that problematic knee (but more about this next week!)

Sean, advances in cardiology and medical management has saved your life. But how do you make that life worth living? There are safe, appropriate exercises that can help you. Strength training can significantly improve your quality of life. And a lot of it starts with a simple dumbbell and squat. That graduation in 8 years time should be far from a pipe dream.

You can book an exercise session with us on our website or call 01 496 4002.


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