Cardio Versus Strength Training: What’s Better for Afib?



Man and woman running on treadmills in indoor gym

No matter your age, your cardiologist, electrophysiologist, or primary care physician has almost certainly told you that exercise is imperative to keep the heart healthy and avoid common cardiovascular risks. However, you may have also noticed that this advice often comes with a distinct lack of detail. What is the best exercise for you, and how frequently should you get to the gym? Once there, what machines should you use? What exactly should you be doing? Ultimately, exercise falls into two buckets: cardiovascular, or cardio, and strength training or weightlifting. Let’s dive into what each of these means and which is most appropriate for a patient with atrial fibrillation or Afib.

Disclaimer: While exercise is almost always good for you, it must be said that if you have existing cardiovascular disease, speak to your cardiologist or electrophysiologist before starting a new exercise routine. While we do want you to work out, there are circumstances in which specific exercises are not appropriate for your cardiovascular status.

Cardio Is Good for the Heart

It says it in the name, so it must be the best exercise for your heart, right? Sort of. Cardiovascular exercise is critically important to maintain the heart muscle, and it does so by increasing the heart rate. Remember, the heart muscle is just any other in our bodies. It needs to be worked out. But just like other muscles, it can get overtired, so be sure to work out within the bounds of your abilities, and if you feel any discomfort, stop and speak to your medical provider. Cardiovascular activities that do not cause undue stress on your joints and bones, especially if you are in middle age or older, are always best. Walk, swim, bike, and if you’d like to go to the gym, elliptical machines, rowing, Stairmaster, or treadmill running are all great exercises. But be aware of strain on your joints if you run on hard surfaces like concrete sidewalks. It is always best to hit the grass or sand where you get some cushioning, if you want to run outside.

Strength Training

Strength training is precisely what it sounds like: using weights or your body weight to create resistance and build muscle. You may think that strength resistance training is reserved for those trying to bulk up or become bodybuilders. But that’s not the case. We all need musculature to keep our bones healthy, maintain good posture, burn calories at rest, and look good! While we don’t suggest that you aim for Schwarzenegger-level lifting, it’s essential that resistance training is part of your daily routine. You might have to start slow, and that’s fine, but you’ll see that your muscles respond quickly, and you’ll be able to lift more every time you go to the gym.

Don’t Forget Zone Two Training

Zone two training is exceptionally good for Afib because it offers foundational-level exercise without significant strain. It involves keeping your heart rate at approximately 65 to 70% of max for 45 to 60 minutes, usually achieved on a relatively level surface. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, maintain a pace where you are challenged but can still hold a conversation with a walking buddy without being completely out of breath. Elite athletes even use zone two to build endurance, allowing for more efficient future training.

Avoid HIIT (Usually)

As exciting as it may sound, high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, can cause significant strain on a heart already dealing with Afib. If you’ve maxed out your other exercises and want to try something new, be sure to speak to your primary care physician, cardiologist, or electrophysiologist to understand if it’s appropriate for your circumstance.

Ultimately, vary your exercise routine by combining cardiovascular and strength training to keep your heart healthy, maintain a healthy weight, and reduce the risks of Afib. Contact our office to learn more about strength training and whether it makes sense for you. We can guide your medical team to understand what exercises, how often how strenuous you should pursue

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