Even a Simple Daily Walk Can Significantly Lower Your Risk of AFib and Stroke

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New research finds that simple exercise like a daily walk can lower your risk of AFib and and stroke while more intense regular exercise may reduce risks even more. SolStock/Getty Images
  • New research suggests that exercise can help lower the risk of atrial fibrillation (AFib).
  • Greater exercise performance was found to be associated with lower rates of AFib, although even a simple walk a day can help.
  • The findings also suggest that exercise may further reduce stroke risks, beyond AFib-associated risks.

A walk a day could help reduce your risk of heart rhythm disorder (also known as atrial fibrillation) and stroke. 

That’s according to new research being presented at the European Society of Cardiology.

Data from over 15,000 people without prior atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF) who underwent exercise treadmill testing between 2003-2012 were analyzed. Greater exercise performance was found to be associated with lower rates of AF, although even a simple walk a day could help.

Specifically, participants were divided into three fitness levels according to metabolic equivalents (METs) achieved during the treadmill test: low (less than 8.57 METs), medium (8.57 to 10.72), and high (more than 10.72). 

The probability of remaining without atrial fibrillation over a five-year period was 97.1%, 98.4% and 98.4% in the low, medium, and high fitness groups, respectively. 

“The exercise capacity is determined by many factors, including age, morbidities, and cardiopulmonary fitness,” said Dr. Shih-Hsien Sung, MD, PhD, study author and associate professor at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Taipei (Taiwan). “The study results demonstrated subjects with achieved METs of <6~9 were at risk of developing AF.”

“Given morbidities and fitness were modifiable risk factors, the encouragement of simply daily walking training may mitigate the risks of AF,” Sung added.

Sung also pointed out that their findings demonstrate exercise capacity may further reduce stroke risks, beyond AF-associated risks.

How the findings from this research can inform Afib and stroke prevention 

The American Heart Association reports over 12 million people are projected to have AF by 2030. Atrial fibrillation is characterized by irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia. It can lead to other heart complications such as:

“As an electrophysiologist, this is something that we discuss with all of our patients as part of lifestyle modifications for prevention and in patients with AF for management of their atrial arrhythmias,” said Dr. Nikhil Warrier, MD, cardiac electrophysiologist and medical director of electrophysiology at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. 

Warrier says the findings are consistent with what has been shown in prior studies with respect to the link between regular exercise and reduced risk of AF in a large cohort.

“Interestingly, there is a significant body of literature showing paradoxically increased risk of developing AF by participating in endurance exercise,” said Warrier. 

Dr. Ernst von Schwarz, MD, PhD, FESC, FACC, FSCAI, a cardiologist, professor of medicine at UCLA and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and author of The Secrets of Immortality said these observational data are confirming the benefits of exercise for cardiovascular health even though the data are not derived from a prospective, controlled randomized study. 

The link between exercise and heart rhythm disorder

Overall, Warrier explained that physical activity can lead to improved weight loss, lipid (blood fat) profiles, blood pressure, glucose control, and can lead to reduced instances of myocardial infarction (heart attacks) and incidence of heart failure. 

“All of these are risk factors for development of AF, and so by decreasing the incidence of these risk factors, AF incidence could be decreased,” said Warrier. 

Von Schwarz said that this study confirms what cardiologists have preached for decades: exercise is good. 

“The reasons are not completely understood but are likely due to the fact that our blood vessels remain elastic doing regular physical activity and our hearts are more conditioned with exercise that renders us more tolerant towards the development of degenerative cardiac problems including the occurrence of arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation,” von Schwarz told Healthline.  

How to begin an exercise routine to improve your heart health

“If you already have a cardiac condition, it is important to discuss this with your medical provider,” Warrier warned.

However, even if you haven’t had a cardiac event, working with a healthcare provider or personal fitness trainer can still be helpful before beginning any new exercise program, particularly if you are living with any complex physical health conditions.

Warrier said it’s important to keep in mind that the exact recommendations for people looking to start exercising for specific heart health reasons will vary from person to person. Therefore, it’s important to not compare your specific routine with the intensity of others.

“The first step is to assess your own physical fitness. If you have not been active, then the goal would be to slowly work up to 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise 4-5 days a week,” Warrier said. 

Incorporation of strength training is also advised, he adds. 

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a combination of both.

Aerobic activities including walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, or any activity that increases your heartbeat enough to change how much oxygen is flowing in the blood and to organs and muscle groups.

The guidelines also suggest adding at least two days a week of muscle-strengthening activities, such as resistance training using resistance bands, free weights, or weight machines. 

The bottom line

New research suggests that exercise can help lower the risk of atrial fibrillation (AFib).

Greater exercise performance was found to be associated with lower rates of AFib, although even a simple walk a day can help.

The findings also suggest that exercise may further reduce stroke risks, beyond AFib-associated risks.

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