Male endurance cyclists at ‘four times greater risk of atrial fibrillation than sedentary population’ - here’s what you need to know about Afib

Tracing his own journey back to fitness after being struck down by a heart rhythm problem 12 years ago, Simon Fellows investigates the link between exercise and arrhythmia

Simon Fellows riding a bike
(Image credit: Future)

It was the summer of 2011 and life was good. In anticipation of a late-season cycling trip to the Dolomites, I’d been steadily building fitness since January. One Saturday, bored of my local Cotswold rides, I drove down through Devon to run the spectacularly pretty but brutally hilly 24km Sidmouth to Beer coastal path. Despite the 2,000m of ascent, I remember gliding effortlessly along the cliff-tops that day with just the gulls for company, wheeling above me in a brilliant blue sky. Back in Sidmouth, lounging in a cafe, I became aware of a strange sensation in my chest. It was as if an agitated finch was trapped in my upper ribcage. Still wearing my heart rate monitor, I watched my heart rate yo-yo between 70bpm and 280bpm.

I ran 50m up the beach hoping it would reset. It didn’t. In fact, I was now feeling positively unusual. Fearing the worst, I walked back to the café and asked the waiter to call an ambulance. Two hours later I was lying in a hospital bed in Exeter, encircled by junior doctors taking turns to peer at me, then at the folds of thermal paper spewing from a nearby ECG machine. “The trace, it’s all over the place,” blurted one doctor with enthusiastic incredulity. “Can I go home?” I asked meekly. “You’re kidding, right?” he replied. “It’s your heart.” I was in my mid-40s, fit and healthy, but I was about to be diagnosed with a heart condition, something I considered unthinkable at the time. It was an arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation, which according to NHS estimates afflicts around 1.4 million people in the UK, about 2.5% of the population.

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Simon Fellows