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Does playing sport put your heart at risk?

Posted in Personal Health 22 Mar, 2012

Most of us don’t need an excuse to avoid the gym. Getting up at 6am to go before work or trying to muster up the courage to go after an eight-hour day is hard enough when we know we’re doing it to stay healthy.

It’s no wonder that our motivation drops even further when newspapers and talk shows are speculating about the possibility that too much exercise can actually be dangerous.

The 23-year-old footballer Fabrice Muamba shocked the nation when he collapsed during Saturday’s FA cup quarter final due to a heart attack. The fact that someone so young could suddenly suffer from heart failure seems hard enough to believe, but Muamba is also said to be one of the fittest players in his club, the Bolton Wanderers.

Muamba is not the first footballer who has become unexpectedly ill. Marc-Vivien Foe, the Cameroonian player for the English Premier League, died tragically in 2003 when he also suffered a heart attack during a match at the age of 28.

However disturbing these sudden events may seem, it should not be interpreted to mean that playing sports is unhealthy or dangerous. Experts say that the incidents are down to genetics rather than the lifestyle choices of the two sportsmen.

The predisposition to cardiac arrhythmias or cardiomyopathies is inherent in some people but may never develop into a serious condition unless the heart is under severe strain, which can come from high-level sporting activities but can also be caused by diets high in saturated fat, smoking, lack of exercise and obesity.

Not doing any exercise at all is just as dangerous as over-exerting your heart, but if you are suffering from chest pains, excessive shortness of breath or blackouts or if there is a family history of high blood pressure or heart attacks at a young age it is worth seeing a doctor for a full cardiac examination.

It is important to not take this as an excuse to avoid exercise altogether, which is far more dangerous. The pressure that is put on the heart of a professional footballer is not comparable to one hour a day on the treadmill and even light exercise such as walking can be beneficial to your heart when done on a daily basis.

Unfortunately some problems can slip through the cracks as Muamba is reported to have had four separate screenings, the last of which was last summer. Although the tests are thorough they are not guaranteed to show all potential problems and any intense sport on a daily basis has its risks. Luckily he is now conscious and breathing unassisted at the London Chest Hospital, where he will hopefully make a full recovery.

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