What is Athlete's Heart?

Alex Paul

Athlete’s heart is a medical condition where the heart grows to a larger size than usual. This is commonly caused by high amounts of exercise over a period of time — often more than an hour each day. Although athlete’s heart syndrome isn’t thought to be dangerous, there are other more serious conditions that mimic the problem. The syndrome is also sometimes referred to as athletic bradycardia.

Jogging provides an aerobic workout.
Jogging provides an aerobic workout.

Although there are no external symptoms of athletic heart syndrome, a low heart rate is possible sign. It’s more likely to be discovered by accident during a screening or scan process. In most cases when the condition has been diagnosed some additional tests are required to check that it’s not a more serious problem such as cardiomyopathy.

Athlete's heart occurs when vigorous amounts of daily exercise cause the heart to grow larger than normal.
Athlete's heart occurs when vigorous amounts of daily exercise cause the heart to grow larger than normal.

The human heart has an ability to adapt that most people aren’t aware of. Over time, large amounts of aerobic exercise will cause it to grow in size just like any other muscle in the body. How much the heart grows depends on the exercise intensity and frequency. Aerobic exercise such as jogging can increase the size of the heart and short, intense activities such as weight lifting can increase the wall strength.

In the majority of cases, athlete’s heart is a harmless condition and hence treatment isn’t required. If, however, the athlete experiences chest pains or other symptoms of heart problems, he or she should visit a doctor in order for more extensive tests to take place. These other symptoms may just be a sign that the body is having difficulty changing to cope with the new heart size or they may be an indication of a serious problem. Sometimes an athlete with a larger heart will experience arrhythmia — an irregular heartbeat.

Typically an athlete will need to train for more than an hour each and every day before athlete’s heart becomes an issue. Even then, there is no guarantee that it will happen. The condition should not always be considered a negative syndrome as it can just be a sign of fitness.

There are occasions where otherwise healthy athletes have died during a sporting activity for seemingly no reason. On closer examination this is usually traced back to some sort of heart problem and this is sometimes mistaken as athlete’s heart. In fact, the problem is nearly always identified as a different heart problem. Even so, it’s usually a good idea for someone with athlete’s heart to get regular check-ups.

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Discussion Comments


My coworker has athlete's heart. He had to get a pacemaker because of it. His blood pressure was falling too much.


@anamur-- Heart hypertrophy (heart enlargement) caused by exercise is generally not dangerous. It's not like the heart hypertrophy caused by high blood pressure.

Our heart is a muscle and it's actually made to adjust to changes in blood volume and pressure. If the heart has to deal with higher blood volume and pressure on a regular basis, it will naturally grow to be able to deal with that.

I think problems come up because of the side effect of heart growth. For example, people who do endurance training and have athlete's heart tend to experience low blood pressure. And people who do strength training have athlete's heart tend to have high blood pressure.

It's these kind of changes that pose problems, but there are people who never experience them.


My brother is showing athlete's heart symptoms. He does training everyday, between 2-4 hours. Lately he's been experiencing very low heart rate and is getting ready to go through a series of diagnostic tests for a diagnosis.

I've been doing a lot of reading on this condition and even though most of the sources say that it's not dangerous, I'm still worried. I have read about and have also witnessed athletes suddenly dying due to heart failure. So I feel that athlete's heart could be dangerous.

Does anyone else have athlete's heart? Has it caused any complications for you?

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