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Perspectives

Effects of high intensity exercise on the heart

André La Gerche

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Abstract

Regular exercise provides a range of health benefits including improved cardiovascular health. However, there is mounting evidence to suggest that highly trained athletes are at greater risk of some arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation.

Key Points

  • Exercise is one of the most powerful positive therapies for improving cardiovascular and overall health.
  • Regular exercise training results in functional, electrical and structural changes in the heart (the ‘athlete’s heart’), which is almost always benign.
  • The extent of heart changes is proportional to an athlete’s fitness.
  • Some arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation, are slightly more common in endurance athletes. The causes and treatments specific to athletes are yet to be determined.
  • People should be encouraged to take up regular exercise regimens. The manner in which they start their exercise regimens (preferably gradually and consistently) is probably more important than any pre-participation screening. Anyone developing symptoms during exercise should be assessed promptly and thoroughly.

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