Exercise can maintain normal heart rhythm in people with heart disease

Credit: CC0 Public Domain.

In a study from the University of Adelaide, scientists found a six-month exercise program helps maintain normal heart rhythm and reduces the severity of symptoms in patients with atrial fibrillation.

They found that some patients can control their arrhythmia through physical activity, without the need for complex interventions such as ablation or medications to keep their heart in normal rhythm.

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a heart rhythm disorder that makes the heart beat fast and irregularly.

The most common symptoms are palpitations, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and fatigue, which can dramatically impact the quality of life. Patients have significant risks of stroke and heart failure.

Exercise-based rehabilitation is recommended for patients with coronary heart disease and heart failure, but few studies have examined the benefits in AF.

In the study, the team allocated 120 patients with symptomatic AF to an exercise intervention or usual care for six months.

The intervention included supervised exercise (weekly for three months then fortnightly for three months) and an individualized weekly plan to follow at home.

Over the six months, the target was to increase aerobic exercise up to 3.5 hours per week.

Supervised sessions were typically higher intensity to raise cardiorespiratory fitness, while home-based exercise was typically a moderate-intensity aerobic activity of the patient’s choice (e.g. walking, indoor cycling, swimming).

The usual care group received exercise advice but no active intervention. All patients received usual medical care from their cardiologist who was blinded to study group allocation.

The team found at 12 months, the AF recurrence rate was much lower in the exercise group (60%) compared to the control group (80%).

This means a larger number of patients in the exercise group could maintain a normal heart rhythm without needing invasive interventions or continued use of drugs.

Patients in the exercise group also had a big reduction in the severity of their symptoms at 12 months compared to the control group. This means that patients reported less severe palpitations, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

The team says this study provides evidence that aerobic exercise should be incorporated into the treatment of patients with symptomatic AF.

This should sit alongside the use of medications, as guided by a cardiologist, and management of obesity, high blood pressure, and sleep apnoea.

As a general guide, patients should strive to build up to 3.5 hours per week of aerobic exercise and incorporate some higher-intensity activities to improve cardiorespiratory fitness.

If you care about heart health, please read studies about the best heart disease treatment, and how to reduce blood pressure with lifestyle changes.

For more information about blood pressure, please see recent studies about how to lower blood pressure by 20 mmHg naturally, and results showing these common foods may help you lower high blood pressure.

The study was conducted by Dr. Adrian Elliott et al.

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