If you’re struggling with atrial fibrillation (afib), here’s something to meditate on – yoga. Research has shown that the practice of yoga is good for overall heart health, and especially beneficial for afib patients. Yoga can help reduce the number of episodes, lower blood pressure, and alleviate some of the anxiety and depression that may go along with having the condition. That all adds up to a better quality of life.
Afib Episodes – More than Pitter Patter
Atrial fibrillation is the most common kind of abnormal heart rhythm condition, impacting at least 2.7 million people across the U.S. It happens when the heart’s upper chambers (atrium) beat rapidly and out of rhythm. This can prevent blood from being pumped out of the heart correctly. For the afib sufferer, it often feels like your heart is galloping and skipping or slamming against your chest. It’s exhausting and frightening, and over time can erode your quality of life. People with afib may live in fear of an episode, hesitant to go out and socialize, isolating themselves, and growing ever more depressed and anxious.
Current treatment options such as surgery and medications are the standard, but doctors are always on the lookout for additional options to help patients manage their disease.
The Heart Has a Mind of its Own
Our heart rhythm is linked to communication between the heart and the brain, says Dhanunjaya “DJ” Lakkireddy, M.D., the medical director of the Kansas City Heart Rhythm Institute (KCHRI) at the HCA Midwest Health Heart and Vascular Institute and author of the YOGA My Heart Study, published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Yoga, with its relaxation techniques and focus on tapping into the mind body connection, can calm the mind and nervous system, relieve stress that can trigger afib episodes and help prevent the heart from speeding up or slowing down.
Dr. Lakkireddy’s study showed that when patients participated in hour long yoga sessions twice a week for three months, they had:
- Fewer AF episodes
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced depression and anxiety
- Improved overall health
Yoga is not a substitute for medical treatment he stresses, but is an excellent complement. It can be gentle, is generally safe for most patients and is a good way to relieve stress.
Starting a Yoga Practice – Say Om and Breathe
You may feel ready for the warrior pose, but as with any exercise, check with your cardiologist before starting a yoga practice. Some types of yoga are gentle, focusing mostly on relaxation and meditation, while others are very strenuous and probably not appropriate for someone with atrial fibrillation. And depending on your overall physical health—fitness level, blood pressure, weight, etc—there may be yoga poses you should avoid as well.
Hatha or Not?
Any style of yoga can help release stress and tension in your body, calm your mind, and relax you. As a bonus, yoga also increases your flexibility and builds strength. If, after talking with your physician, you’re ready to strike a pose, you will likely want to start with a gentle style of yoga. Hatha, Iyengar, Kripalu Sivananda, or Viniyoga are all gentle options for beginners. Try different instructors and classes to see what suits you best.
Moving Beyond the Mat – Other Exercises for Afib
The benefits of exercise overall on heart health are well-documented. Once you’ve gotten the okay from your doctor to start an exercise program, start out with some basic exercises that are good for people with atrial fibrillation. Remember to start out slow to give your heart time to adjust to a higher level of activity, especially if you don’t exercise regularly.
- Stretching before you start and after you finish exercising can help prevent muscle injuries and enhance your balance
- Walking and/or jogging (if able) are aerobic and generally manageable for people at most levels of fitness and health
- Cycling is a good option if you’re overweight or have joint issues. Biking or stationary cycling can help you get in shape without too much stress on your heart or joints
- Strength training with either weights or resistance bands helps build muscles and bones and is a good complement to aerobic exercises
Afib can make you tire more easily when you exercise, or experience symptoms like a racing heart, heart palpitations, dizziness, anxiety or shortness of breath. Make sure that your level of activity, the duration, and the level of intensity are all in line with your physical health and fitness level to help minimize or alleviate symptoms.
Helping You Keep the Beat
The Kansas City Heart Rhythm Institute offers expertise and the highest level of care for atrial fibrillation and other heart rhythm conditions. We have five convenient electrophysiology practice locations across the metro area with services available at four KC hospitals. Our physicians are known research leaders, participating in hundreds of clinical trials to advance care for patients with arrhythmias.