As exercise increases the heart rate, many people with irregular heart rhythms wonder whether they’re putting their heart under undue stress when they work out. Learn more.

Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) are sequences of heartbeats that are irregular, too fast, too slow or conducted via an abnormal electrical pathway through the heart, according to The Merck Manuals.

What should you know about your heart rate, an abnormal rhythm, exercise and your overall health?

More about your heart rate
Your heart has an intricate electrical system that tells it when to beat blood through the rest of your body. An electrical current begins each heartbeat, while the autonomic nervous system determines the actual heart rate – the number of times your heart beats in one minute.

In adults at rest, a healthy heart rate is between 60 – 100 beats per minute. If you’re very fit, your resting heart rate may be less than 60 beats per minute.

Certain hormones can change your heart rate, as can certain medications, drugs, alcohol, caffeine and exercise. Emotions such as anger and anxiety can also have an effect.

When the heart rate is inappropriately fast, or irregular, your heart rhythm is considered abnormal. However, some arrhythmias are completely harmless and not related to heart disease.

Some people are aware of their irregular heartbeat, while others only experience the results of it, namely weakness or fainting. Interestingly, being aware of an irregular heartbeat doesn't necessarily mean it’s a sign of serious trouble.

Exercise plan of action
To pump extra nutrients and oxygen to your muscles, your heart rate increases when you exercise. As long-term heart arrhythmias are often linked to heart problems (e.g. atrial fibrillation), people worry that exercise could make things worse.

Exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle and the vast majority of people who have arrhythmias shouldn’t avoid physical activity because of their condition, says Dr Scott Brancato, a cardiologist/electrophysiologist from the Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic in the United States.

Exercise reduces many heart risks such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, and can reduce the frequency and duration of arrhythmia episodes. Only in people with a few rare genetic types of heart arrhythmias is exercise discouraged.

Dr Brancato recommends the following plan of action:

    • Go to your doctor to find out if you indeed have an arrhythmia and what type it is.

    • An exercise treadmill test (with or without heart imaging) can help determine whether exercise brings on an arrhythmia and whether there are any blockages in the heart arteries.

    • This test will also show what level of exercise you’re able to tolerate.

    • The doctor will recommend an exercise plan with which you can build up your exercise tolerance over time.

    • Consider exercising under supervision, especially when you’re just starting an exercise program.

    • Many people with arrhythmias start off with five or 10 minutes of walking and gradually build up to 30 – 45 minutes five times per week. Exercise intensity can later be increased.

    • Slow down if you feel dizzy, lightheaded or you experience heart palpitations.

The Arrhythmia Institute adds the following general tips:

    • Avoid substances such as alcohol, tobacco and caffeine that increase your heart rate.

    • Make sure that your heart rate is regularly monitored, especially if you’ve just started an exercise program.

    • Be aware that certain medications (e.g. cough and cold drugs containing pseudoephedrine) can cause heart arrhythmias.

    • Learn how to take your pulse. In this way, you can monitor your own heart rate, and find out when you need to see the doctor.




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