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Atrial Fibrillation in Athletes

AF risk is particularly high among younger athletes.

Graphic of heart rhythms to show atrial fibrillation

For athletes, the risk of experiencing irregular heart rhythms, also known as atrial fibrillation (AF), is 2.5 times higher than it is for nonathletes, according to a research review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (2021; doi:10.1136/bjsports-2021-103994).

Canterbury Christ Church University researchers in England conducted the review to better understand the prevalence of AF among athletes and to determine contributing factors. Investigators analyzed 13 studies with data on 70,478 subjects.

Data analysis showed that, overall, AF risk was 2.46 times higher among athletes than nonathletes. When controlled for heart disease risk factors, athletes had a 3.7 times higher risk of AF than nonathletes. Athletes under 55 years were 3.6 times more likely to have irregular heart rhythms than older athletes, who were 76% more likely to have the condition than older nonathletes. Mixed-sport participants had a greater risk of atrial fibrillation than aerobic endurance exercisers.

Researchers noted a lack of high-quality studies for determining what the maximum safest regular “dose” of exercise is before AF risk becomes significant. Also, while female athletes were included in some studies, that data was limited. The study authors would like to see more research done, including larger studies that involve both male and female athletes and that clearly measure years and volume of training.

See also: Some Physical Activity May Not Benefit Heart Health

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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