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Heart Arrhythmias and Exercise

Topic Overview

If you have an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), ask your doctor what type and level of exercise is safe for you. Regular activity can help keep your heart and body healthy.

The type and amount of exercise that is allowable will vary depending on the cause of your abnormal heart rhythm and whether you have other forms of heart disease. If your irregular heartbeat is caused by another type of heart disease (such as cardiomyopathy or a valve problem), you may need to limit your activity because of the other heart disease.

Before you start a new exercise program or change your current exercise program:

  • Talk with your doctor. He or she may do a physical exam, an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), and possibly a stress ECG test to assess what level of activity your heart can handle.
  • Make an exercise plan together with your doctor. An exercise program usually consists of stretching, activities that increase your heart rate (aerobic exercise), and strength training (lifting light weights).
  • Make a list of questions to discuss with your doctor. Do this before your appointment. For some sample questions, see this form about planning to be more active when you have a chronic disease(What is a PDF document?).
  • Consider joining a health club, walking group, or YMCA. Senior centers often offer exercise programs.
  • Learn how to check your heart rate. Learn about taking a pulse. Your doctor can tell you how fast your pulse (target heart rate) should be when you exercise.
  • Know how to exercise safely with a cardiac device such as a pacemaker or ICD. If you have a cardiac device, your doctor might advise you not to take part in contact sports. Impacts during these sports could damage your device. Sports such as swimming, running, walking, tennis, golf, and bicycling are safer.
  • Know what symptoms could be a sign of a problem. For example, stop exercising and get some rest if you develop palpitations, chest pain, or dizziness or lightheadedness. Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if these symptoms don't go away.

Tips for success

  • Set realistic goals. If you expect too much, you are likely to become discouraged and stop exercising.
  • Give yourself time. It can take months to get into the habit of exercising. After a few months, you may find that you are looking forward to it.
  • Stay with it. It can be hard to follow an exercise plan. Try exercising with a friend—it is much easier to continue an exercise program if you are exercising with someone else.
  • Reward yourself. Build in rewards along the way that help you continue your program.
  • Start out slowly. Try parking farther away from the store or walk the mall before shopping. Over time, you will increase your ability to do more.
  • Keep a record of your daily exercise. It is okay to skip a day now and then or to cut back on your exercise if you are too tired or aren't feeling well.

For more information, see:

Fitness: Getting and Staying Active.

Precautions when starting an exercise program

When starting an exercise program, keep the following precautions in mind:

  • Pace yourself by alternating exercises. Rotate light workouts, such as short walks, with more strenuous exercises, such as low-impact aerobics or swimming.
  • Avoid exercising outdoors in extreme temperatures or high humidity. When the weather is bad, try exercising indoors at a gym or walking at a mall.
  • Avoid exercises that require or encourage holding your breath, such as push-ups, sit-ups, and heavy lifting.
  • Do not take hot or cold showers or sauna baths after exercising. Moderate temperatures are best, because very hot or very cold temperatures can be dangerous.
  • Ask your doctor about continuing your exercise program if your medicines change. New medicines can affect how you feel when you exercise.
  • Do not take naps after exercise, because that reduces exercise tolerance.
  • Take your pulse frequently or wear a heart rate monitor, and keep your pulse within the parameters your doctor sets. Watch your pulse when walking up hills or stairs.
  • Make sure you adjust your exercise program if it is interrupted for more than just a couple of days. Gradually increase to your regular activity level as tolerated.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Graham TP Jr, et al. (2005). 36th Bethesda Conference: Eligibility recommendations for competitive athletes for cardiovascular abnormalities. Task Force 2: Congenital heart defects. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 45(8): 1326–1333.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
John M. Miller, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Last Revised December 14, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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