New Study: Doing This Can Help Reduce Your Risk of Heart Arrhythmia and Stroke

New research from Taiwan shows the protective powers of staying fit against atrial fibrillation and stroke.

A recent preliminary study presented at the August 2023 European Society of Cardiology conference in Amsterdam revealed that consistent physical fitness can significantly reduce the risk of stroke and atrial fibrillation (or “AFib,” also commonly referred to as heart arrhythmia).

Shih-Hsien Sung, MD, PhD, an Associate Professor at Taiwan’s National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University’s Department of Medicine and a contributing author to the study, emphasized its importance. In a press release, he mentioned, “This was a large study with an objective measurement of fitness and more than 11 years of follow up. The findings indicate that keeping fit may help prevent atrial fibrillation and stroke.”

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The study’s findings

Over almost a decade, researchers monitored 15,450 participants who, at the study’s outset, were AFib-free. These individuals underwent a treadmill test, assessed using the ‘Bruce protocol.’ This test gradually increases in speed and incline over three-minute intervals. Fitness levels were measured in METs—metabolic equivalents. (Think of it as a way to gauge the intensity of physical activities relative to a baseline.)

As the study progressed, 3.3% of participants developed atrial fibrillation. An intriguing finding was that with each MET increase achieved during the treadmill test, participants experienced an 8% reduction in Afib risk, a 12% decrease in stroke risk and a 14% drop in major adverse cardiovascular events risk.

Participants were grouped into three MET tiers on the fitness spectrum: Low, medium and high. Remarkably, those in the highest fitness category had a 98.4% chance of avoiding Afib over five years.

The takeaway? Regular physical activity and maintaining a good fitness level can be potent strategies to prevent Afib.

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Atrial fibrillation: What you need to know

As the Cleveland Clinic describes, Afib is an irregular heart rhythm stemming from the heart’s upper chambers (atria). When Afib occurs, standard electrical impulses in the heart face disruptions, leading to chaotic heart rhythms and poor blood flow from the atria to the lower chambers (ventricles).

Globally, it’s the most prevalent heart rhythm disorder, with over 40 million diagnosed. In Europe, the statistics are particularly concerning: One in three Europeans is predicted to develop this disorder during their lifespan. Along with Afib comes a significant increase in the risk of stroke, five times more than those without the condition. Given the gravity of these figures, prioritizing the understanding and prevention of Afib is crucial on a global scale.

It’s also worth noting that Afib doesn’t always show symptoms. These often hinge on the pace of the ventricular beats. When the rhythm is normal or slightly fast, signs might go unnoticed. However, a rapid beat can trigger symptoms like severe fatigue, irregular heartbeats, palpitations, chest discomfort, dizziness, and even breathlessness or fainting. Encountering these signs warrants immediate consultation with healthcare experts to explore Afib prevention and manage potential complications.

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The bottom line

If you’re contemplating starting a fitness routine or enhancing your current one, consider this a gentle push forward. Physical fitness not only boosts your overall health but can also act as a protective barrier against serious health conditions.

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Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO
Tricia is a doctor of osteopathy with experience in primary healthcare. She received her medical degree from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and conducts clinical research in Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, as she is motivated by the desire to contribute to the development of innovative treatments and therapies. She is also a certified lifestyle coach for the CDC-recognized National Diabetes Prevention Program, empowering individuals to make lasting, healthy lifestyle changes. Dr. Varacallo loves to write— especially about health, wellness, and grief. Drawing from her own experiences of loss and caregiving, she loves to offer support and encouragement to those navigating their own grief journeys. Outside of her professional life, she enjoys traveling and exploring the sunny beaches of Florida with her significant other, always ready for their next adventure.