6 Rules for People With an Irregular Heartbeat

Sex, exercise and other activities may be completely safe for those with AFib.

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Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a heart condition in which the heart pumps irregularly, either too quickly or too slowly. "AFib is one of the most common arrhythmias cardiologists take care of," says Donald Orth, MD, a cardiologist with Lourdes Health System in Voorhees, New Jersey.

Arrhythmias are caused by abnormalities in the heart's electrical system, which can be the result of injuries or deformations in the heart, like coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, infection and sleep apnea. Treatments, such as medications, surgery and shock therapy, are available. If AFib goes untreated, it can lead to a slew of complications, like blood clots, which can cause a stroke or heart failure.

Treating the inciting cause is the first thing doctors will look to do; treating the atrial fibrillation is the second. However, the cause of the atrial fibrillation can sometimes be unclear.

Even after AFib is under control, jumping back into normal activities can be overwhelming, and even a little scary. But there's some good news: Sex and exercise are expert-approved actions. Here's what you need to know about living with an irregular heartbeat.

Medically reviewed in August 2018.

Regular sex is healthy

2 / 7 Regular sex is healthy

Once AFib is controlled, Orth recommends resuming normal activities. "Sex is fine, running is fine, gym work is fine. All these things are perfectly acceptable," he says.

There are proven health benefits to spending some time between the sheets, too. Sex can help alleviate headaches and improve sleep, but doing the deed may be especially helpful for your heart. Men who have sex twice a week are less likely to develop heart disease than those who get busy just once a month, according to a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Cardiology.

Despite what you've seen in the movies, little evidence suggests sex is linked to cardiac-related deaths. In fact, one 2017 study suggests just 34 of the more than 4,500 cases of sudden cardiac arrest studied occurred during or within an hour of sexual intercourse.

Exercise is good for your heart

3 / 7 Exercise is good for your heart

Physical activity can help control weight, protect your heart and even boost your mood, so it’s important to make it part of your regular routine. Exercising with atrial fibrillation can actually improve cardiovascular strength, but you may want to take precautions.

People taking certain medications to treat AFib may want to avoid taxing exercises, like hiking and running. "Sometimes, [patients] have to avoid too much strenuous activity, if their heart rate is not well controlled," he says.

Orth also warns that anticoagulant medications increase your risk of bleeding, so take care to avoid bumps, scrapes and bruises. "We caution patients on anticoagulation of their risk of bleeding. The medications significantly reduce the chance of blood clotting and embolization of clots," he says.

Speak with your doctor about the best exercises for you before beginning any fitness routine. And if you experience a fluttering or pounding in your chest, fatigue or dizziness during activity, take a breather and report signs to your healthcare provider.

It's best to manage your stress

4 / 7 It's best to manage your stress

Stress, the body's reaction to certain stimuli, is part of normal life, and can often help keep us alert and out of danger.

However, people who experience stress often, or whose stressors never seem to go away, may be at an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, potential causes of an irregular heartbeat.

Although one stressful experience may not throw your heart out of whack, it's not a bad idea to protect your heart whenever possible. Stress management involves techniques that help quell the mental, physical and emotional aspects of stress. Regular exercise, adequate sleep and relaxation techniques, like meditation and yoga, can help keep stress under control.

Identifying your stressors can also help you quell tension. Tracking your stress using apps like Sharecare for (available on iOS and Android) can help you pinpoint stressful activities. Within the app you can either manually enter your stress levels or record a 30-second conversation and let the software analyze your voice. This tool can help you avoid your most pressure-provoking activities.

Traveling is encouraged—but be prepared

5 / 7 Traveling is encouraged—but be prepared

You bought your plane ticket and booked your hotel room, but now it's time to pack your bags, load the family into the car and get to the airport with enough time to get through security. Sure, venturing to a faraway place is fun, and it may even have some benefits for your brain. But the preparation to get to your destination can be anything but relaxing.

Despite the stress associated with traveling, there's some good news: It's safe for most people with heart conditions, including cardiac arrhythmia, to fly.

Some research suggests it's possible the change in air pressure during flight can provoke an irregular heartbeat, though it's not likely. It's best to be prepared anyway.

  • Pack your medication and keep your doctor's name and phone number handy.
  • Research medical facilities at your destination in case an issue arises.
  • Prolonged sitting can increase your risk for blood clots—get up and walk when possible.

A note about anticoagulants: These medications help protect against blood clots, so moving on an airplane isn't as urgent.

You can still enjoy your favorite foods and drinks

6 / 7 You can still enjoy your favorite foods and drinks

A well-balanced diet, rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats, is encouraged for everyone. But, eating a heart-friendly diet is especially important for someone with a heart condition. Additionally, the American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake of saturated fats, sodium and sugar-sweetened treats and drinks.

But, even with an irregular heartbeat, the occasional indulgence is OK. "Some people are sensitive to certain beverages, like alcohol or too much caffeine, but this is not true with everybody," Orth says. Before pouring yourself a glass of wine or coffee, speak with your doctor about how these stimulants might affect you.

There are some other precautions to consider, too. If you're on the anticoagulant Warfarin, vegetables rich in vitamin K, like kale and spinach, can alter the effects of the drug. Orth also recommends being cautious around the holidays. "What we call holiday heart syndrome, where people are drinking more alcohol than they're used to, may trigger atrial fibrillation," he says.

Regular weigh-ins help keep you on track

7 / 7 Regular weigh-ins help keep you on track

Maintaining a healthy weight is beneficial for many reasons, including decreasing your risk for diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.

Obese patients with a heart rhythm disorder, who lost at least 10 percent of their initial body weight, were more likely to overcome the condition than those who maintained their current weight, research from 2015 suggests.

Keeping a food journal, planning healthy snacks and making an effort to move more throughout your day are all slimming tips, but so is stepping on the scale.

Women who weighed themselves daily over a two-year period decreased their body mass index more than those who didn't, according to a 2017 Journal of Behavioral Medicines study of 294 collage-aged women. Take a minute to step on the scale—your heart and your waistline will thank you.

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