Carried out by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the new large-scale study looked at data gathered from 43,602 men and women who participated in the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (the HUNT Study) between 2006 and 2008.
Nearly 1,500 of the participants developed atrial fibrillation by the end of 2015.
Obesity is a well-known risk factor for atrial fibrillation. The team found that participants who were overweight had an 18% increased risk of atrial fibrillation, while those who were obese had a 59% higher risk.
However, increasing levels of physical activity were associated with a gradually lower risk of atrial fibrillation.
“The risk of atrial fibrillation was lower the more physically active a person was. This turned out to be especially true for people with obesity,” explained Lars Elnan Garnvik, one of the study’s co-authors.
“People who were obese but who exercised a lot limited the increase in risk to no more than approximately 50 per cent. This suggests that physical activity is good for limiting the increased risk of atrial fibrillation in obese people.”
Garnvik emphasized that the study can’t guarantee that physical activity protects against atrial fibrillation. The analysis did consider several other risk factors which could potentially explain the link between exercise and the condition, including smoking, alcohol use and previous cardiovascular disease.
“Physical activity and exercise reduce a lot of the known risk factors for atrial fibrillation, like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol and chronic inflammation. Physical activity can also improve a person’s fitness level, and we know that people in good shape have a reduced risk of heart failure,” said Garnvik.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of heart fibrillation. Symptoms include chest pain, a ‘racing’ or unusual heartbeat palpitations, weakness, fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness, and shortness of breath. The condition can significantly reduce an individual’s quality of life, as well as increase the risk of other conditions such as stroke, dementia, heart attack and kidney disease, and death.
The findings were published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.