Can you push your heart too hard?

July 16, 2019 3 min read

Can you push your heart too hard?

It’s good to know that exercise and cycling are good for you, at the same time it’s important to factor in that more doesn’t always mean more when it comes to riding and heart health.

While additional evidence is needed and there are more tests to be conducted there is a growing belief in the medical world that endurance exercise can cause heart damage.

At this stage it’s still too hard to get definitive conclusions about the long-term effects of intensive exercise, since isolating the cause of the initial heart condition is tricky.

Does erratic endurance exercise pose a heart risk?

In 2009 six controlled studies on athletic exercise and heart heath concluded that endurance athletes are five times more likely to develop atrial fibrillation, (or AF), where the top chambers of your heart contract too quickly.

Having AF isn’t life threatening but it can increase your risk of stroke, heart complications and heart failure, however, all evidence on heart conditions suggest not exercising is a far greater risk than exercising too much.

Instances of heart health issues in healthy, fit people are rare; usually heart conditions are the cause of pre-existing abnormalities or long-term lifestyle choices like poor diet, low exercise, smoking and drinking. Overall, exercise is the best thing you can do for your health.

If you do feel there is a glitch in your heart rhythm the best way to proceed is to rein in the regime and decrease the intensity. Stopping exercise altogether is not recommended since stroke risk is increased by factors like high blood pressure, and diabetes, regular moderate exercise is great at combatting these issues.

Atrial fibrillation symptoms include

  • Chest pain
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Fatigue
  • Heart palpitations
  • Racing or irregular flip-flop feeling in your chest
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Light-headedness
  • Shortness of breath

To begin with the out of rhythm heart episodes may happen occasionally, where symptoms come and go. If the high intensity exercise is continued then the frequency of the condition will increase and pose a greater threat.

Sometimes there are no symptoms present, the problem is only realised during a medical examination.

Those most at risk are men, in particular tall men, although more research needs to be done to determine why that is the case.

If you have any doubts or concerns or if you are experiencing irregularities in your heartbeat while you cycle or rest, even if they go away after a few minutes, book in to get checked by your GP.

A note of interest in AF cases is that there needs to be a problem in the heart for the irregular beats to happen, a healthy heart will not produce this erratic flow. Because athletes are more prone to this heart condition it is suspected that the initial abnormality that leads to AF is brought on by a decade or two of endurance training. Not every person who trains hard will experience these problems.

It’s unclear during tests if the condition related to heart scaring and abnormalities are pre-existing, caused by non-sporting factors or brought on by exercise. It could well be that there is a large proportion of people who are born with a genetic heart weakness that shows up only in those who participate in endurance sports and remains hidden and dormant in others.

Initial theories are that athletes may experience heart strain, inflation and injury as the hearts grows and strengthens to meet the demand placed on it. The fluctuation in heart rate over and over, from very low when resting to very high during endurance periods, as well as adrenaline, may contribute towards the heart trigger.

Another theory is that scarring from endurance exercise may disrupt the heart’s electrical signals, causing the heart to beat out of sync.

Things to take into account when considering your risk is how healthy you were before you took up exercise. Those who have been healthy and fit for most, if not all, of their lives may be less at risk then someone who put pressure on their heart through lifestyle choices then turned to endurance exercises to get into shape. While fitness, weight and blood pressure will improve with exercise, any damage to the heart is unlikely to repair.

While exercise is good for your mind and body it’s important to keep in mind that everything should be taken in moderation. More exercise does not necessarily mean increased health.

Great health can be achieved with just 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day. That’s great incentive to get your ride done sooner and spend more time with loved ones at home.

If you want to know more about heart health and endurance exercise read, The Haywire Heart, 2017, which includes the expertise of former pro cyclist Lennard Zinn and heart doctor John Mandrola.

Getting in exercise while staying safe and healthy? That’s freedom!

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