Heart health: Why fit people are also at risk

Posted on 5 July 2016

It’s a fallacy that heart disorders or heart attacks only happen to older or overweight people. Young, fit people can die from heart conditions too – and often it’s aggravated by over-training. A Mediclinic expert talks us through the risks.

The world of professional sports has a long – and sometimes tragic – list of top athletes who have suffered unexpected heart disorders. Cameroonian soccer star Marc-Vivien Foé collapsed and died on the field during a 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup semifinal. Cause of death: hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a hereditary heart condition that increases the risk of sudden death during physical exercise.

Former Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest on the field during an FA Cup match in 2012. But he was lucky: although his heart stopped for 78 minutes, he recovered. Earlier this year Springbok winger Cornal Hendricks had to retire from top-level rugby after being diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Foé, Muamba and Hendricks were all super-fit elite athletes. None of them expected to suffer a heart condition.

Fitness is no guarantee
‘Being fit reduces your overall cardiac risk, but unfortunately it won’t prevent you from developing cardiac disease,’ says Dr Nico van der Merwe, a cardiologist at Mediclinic Bloemfontein. ‘There’s no question about it – we do see myocardial infarction in fit people.’

In some cases, heart conditions can even be brought on – or exacerbated – by excessive exercise or over-training. ‘In some people who do endurance sports, we also see other kinds of cardiac disease,’ says Dr Van der Merwe.

‘These include arrhythmias, which can be directly attributed to endurance sports. Arrhythmias especially can be brought on by overtraining. Endurance athletes have a high risk of atrial fibrillation and can also develop ventricular fibrillations. That’s been very well described in research.’

Monitor yourself
Fortunately, you can monitor your resting heart rate over time to track whether you’re putting too much strain on your heart. All you need is a heartrate monitor or some method of measuring your pulse (a clock and your fingers can do the job too!).

Check your resting morning heart rate in the two or three days following a hard workout. If your beats per minute (bpm) are much higher than normal (seven or more extra bpm count as ‘much higher’), then you know your heart hasn’t fully recovered. Similarly, watch for irregular heartbeats. They could be harmless, but they could also be a sign of something serious.

If, over time, you find your heart rate isn’t coming down to normal two or three days after a workout, you should visit a Mediclinic doctor or cardiologist.

* Read more about arrhythmias here.


Published in Cardiology

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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