Is Your Heart Strong Enough for Your Run?

New research finds that sport-related cardiac arrests are rare. But some people have a higher risk


News of young- and middle-aged adults suddenly suffering from a cardiac arrest while running a marathon or even just jogging in a local park is always tragic and scary-and can make you wonder whether these grueling trials are more dangerous than they're worth. (Find out How To Run Every Day-Safely.)

Now, new research in the journal Circulation offers some reassurance: While heartbreaking when it does happen, it's extremely uncommon for middle-aged athletes to experience a sudden cardiac arrest during a sporting event. In fact, only about 5 percent of all cardiac arrests occur during physical activity. Plus, when it does happen, the victim has nearly double the chances of recovering, compared to people who suffer from a cardiac arrest that wasn't sports-related. (Did you know Men Are Treated Faster Than Women for Heart Attacks?)

While it's good to hear that heart issues rarely crop up during sporting events, knowing there's still a chance is worrying. So we asked study author Sumeet Chugh, M.D., about who's most at risk of experience a cardiac event-and who should consider visiting their doctor before lacing up their running shoes. He offered this checklist:

  • Anyone who's new to exercise
  • Anyone with a family history of severe heart problems, who has had heart problems themselves in the past, or is taking heart meds
  • Anyone with high cholesterol, hypertension, or diabetes
  • Anyone who is 20+ pounds overweight
  • Cigarette smokers

But even if you didn't tick off any of the bullet points above, you might want to think about asking their doctors for a heart check. (Learn more about The Real Risk of Heart Attack During Endurance Exercise.) "More cardiac arrests happen with just jogging," says Chugh. "Someone will wake up on a nice spring day and think, ‘Hey, I'll go for a run!'" And even though they're de-conditioned from a relatively inactive winter, they hit up their usual five-mile loop-and their heart can't take the strain, Chugh explains. He recommends ramping your activity levels back up slowly.

Also smart: knowing the early warning signs. About a third of the people who did have a cardiac arrest during physical activity had symptoms in the week prior to the event, says Chugh. So keep an eye out for symptoms like chest discomfort during exercise, unreasonable breathlessness (you get super-winded walking up the stairs, for example), or dizziness or fainting.

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