Recent research in the United Kingdom has shown that those who play sports are more likely to develop atrial fibrillation (AFib).
Researchers found that people who play mixed sports, such as soccer or rugby, are at greatest risk.
Experts believe that exercise can alter the structure of your heart and increase your risk of developing arrhythmias.
Experts recommend talking to your doctor about possible risks if you are considering changing your exercise routine.
According to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, athletes may be at greater risk of developing a heart condition that causes strokes.
AFib (or atrial fibrillation) is an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia that is linked to increased risk for a number of health problems, including stroke.
AFib is commonly associated with older adults, weaker cardiovascular systems and more severe cases of AFib. However, a new study suggests that AFib may also affect young, seemingly healthy athletes.
AFib risk for athletes is more than twice as high
A team from Canterbury Christ Church University, England led by U.K. researchers reviewed existing studies in order to determine if an athlete’s sport had an effect on their AFib risk.
Researchers reviewed 13 studies that examined athletes participating in running, swimming, Nordic ski, orienteering and rowing between 1990 and 2020.
These studies provided data on 70.478 participants. This included 63.662 controls and 6.816 athletes.
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Researchers found that athletes were at 2.46 times more likely to get AFib than non-athletes. This is due to athletes who participate in mixed and endurance sports.
What is AFib?
Michael Goyfman MD, the director of clinical cardiology at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills, New York told Healthline that AFib is most common in older adults. Although it isn’t life-threatening, strokes can be caused by arrhythmia.
Goyfman explained that atrial fibrillation occurs when the top of the heart beats irregularly. It quivers. “The blood doesn’t circulate as well within the chamber and when it doesn’t circulate well, it can cause blood clots and coagulation.”
He explained that if there is a blood clot in the heart it can travel to the brain and cause a stroke.
“We generally give blood thinners these patients to reduce the chance of these clots growing.”
We need to do more research
Goyfman stated that this research does not prove that exercise causes AFib. However, it does show that there is a correlation.
Goyfman said, “I don’t know how accurate this is.” “The problem with all these sets, [including] those that were published…it’s almost a cohort study of the information. It’s retrospective or self-reported so you can definitely find some correlation, but it doesn’t infer any causality.”
Endurance exercise, AFib risk
Laurence M. Epstein MD, system director for electrophysiology at Northwell Health’s Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital, Manhasset, New York explained that more is not always better when it comes to exercising.
Epstein stated that exercising beyond a certain point can lead to more harm than good. Epstein pointed out that AFib is more common in those who participate in long-distance cycling races.
A 2009 study showed that elite endurance athletes could have five times the risk of AFib than those in the general population. Epstein expressed concern that the U.K. study didn’t find an increase in AFib risk among bicyclists.
Epstein stated that “it’s well-known that long-duration sports like triathlons or bicycle races are associated with an increased incidence of AFib.”
This is what this means for athletes who are not elite
Goyfman stressed that it is important to always do a “risk-benefit assessment” before making drastic changes to your exercise routines.
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He said that some patients have very low risks. “So, for those patients, AFib risk is not really a concern. I recommend that anyone considering changing their exercise routine consult a cardiologist to understand the risks and benefits.