How Much Exercise is Too Much Exercise for Your Heart?

While there’s no denying that the benefits of aerobic exercise far outweigh the risks for cardiac patients, a new report from the American Heart Association shows that some types of exercise might actually be detrimental to your long-term health.

One example cited by researchers is when people participate in extreme endurance events like marathon and triathlon training, but aren’t accustomed to the high intensity. In instances like these, researchers found a link between increased activity and increased risk for sudden cardiac arrest, atrial fibrillation, and heart attacks.

“Exercise is medicine, and there is no question that moderate to vigorous physical activity is beneficial to overall cardiovascular health,” says Barry A. Franklin, Ph.D., director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, Michigan. “However, like medicine, it is possible to underdose and overdose on exercise – more is not always better.”

To put things perspective, researchers found that the risk of atrial fibrillation is highest in people who are sedentary, but the risk is nearly as high in people who engage in high volumes of high-intensity training, like running 60-80 miles each week.

What does this mean for you?

While extreme levels of exercise can be detrimental to your heart, don’t let that stop you from finding a happy medium. Not exercising at all is still a far greater risk to your health, so it’s important that you find a physical activity that you enjoy. If you don’t exercise at all, even daily tasks like shoveling snow can become a burden and cause a rapid spike in heart rate, blood pressure, and shortness of breath when you participate.

Likewise, don’t let these findings discourage you from setting your fitness sights on a lofty goal like running a marathon. There are healthy ways to start an exercise program, it’s just important that you take your time so that you don’t over strain your heart.

To help you do just that, here are several tips for starting a heart-healthy workout routine:

  • Talk to Your Doctor – Before you start a strenuous exercise routine, it’s important that you talk to your doctor to make sure that you’re healthy enough to begin. This is especially important for anyone at a moderate to significant risk of suffering a cardiac event, anyone with previous cardiac problems, or for anyone who’s currently inactive/sedentary.
  • Start Slow – Even if you were athlete in high school or college, it’s important that you start slow and gradually work your way up to different levels of physical activity. If you’ve been sedentary for several years, for example, start by walking on a level surface for 6-8 weeks before progressing to walking up hills, jogging, and running. You want to make sure there aren’t any symptoms of chest pain, pressure, lightheadedness, or shortness of breath before you advance to more strenuous activities.
  • Don’t Forget to Warm Up – In the same mindset of “start slow”, make sure you take the time to properly stretch and get your heart rate up a little bit before starting your exercise routine. Jumping directly into intense exercise can put you at a greater risk for suffering a cardiac event.
  • Acclimate to Your Environment – If you’re going to be exercising at altitude or running in extremely hot and humid conditions, make sure your prepared beforehand and know your limits. In altitude conditions, try acclimating to the altitude for 24-48 hours before exercising if possible, and don’t be afraid to cut your exercise short as opposed to overstraining your heart and body.
  • Cool Off – Once you’re done exercising, it’s important that you take the time to properly cool off and allow your heart rate to return to its resting rhythm. If you experience any persistent chest pain, pressure, lightheadedness, or shortness of breath after you’ve ended your exercise and have had time to rest, make sure you talk to a doctor right away.

If you have any questions for your cardiologist about starting an exercise program, make sure you schedule an appointment before getting started. Current Heart and Vascular Institute patients can also use the Patient Portal to contact their cardiologist electronically.