What Causes Heart Palpitations During Exercise?

Updated October 15, 2022
Woman having a break during workout

Do you sometimes get heart palpitations when you work out? Your heart is designed to beat the same way every time, over and over and over again ad nauseum. But sometimes our genetic makeup, mental health, and many other factors can disrupt this steady march. One example: heart palpitations.

According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), heart palpitations can feel like a racing, fluttering, or throbbing heartbeat. It can also feel like your heart is skipping beats. While palpitations can be harmless, other heart problems can cause the same symptoms, so it is important to seek medical attention right away if you feel any new cardiac symptoms.

Causes of Heart Palpitations During Exercise

Causes of heart palpitations during exercise vary, but they can usually be attributed to your fitness level or health history. It is common to experience an increase in heart rate during exercise, sometimes so much so that it feels like your heart is pounding out of control. An increased heart rate occurs during different types of exercise and may also be affected by the type of exerciser

Heart Palpitations During Different Types of Exercise

Your heart rate is likely to change while performing certain types of workouts.

  • Cardiovascular training specifically targets the heart and the lungs. Researchers of a study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation (JER) found that over time, cardio improves your body's ability to supply oxygen to your muscles. While performing this type of exercise, you may find that your heart beats faster than usual.

  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is performed by alternating between periods of higher levels of intense exercise and periods of rest. The goal is to burn more fat in less time by working harder. Since it is more challenging than most workout varieties, it may feel like your heart is thumping against your chest. Some report feeling palpitations after HIIT, but studies have not confirmed the correlation.
  • Weight training is a form of exercise that activates your muscles to build strength. While some people lift moderate-level weights for toning and general fitness, others, such as bodybuilders, lift much heavier weights. Weightlifters activate a certain stress response in the body that, according to the NLM, might cause them to feel heart palpitations as a pounding in their ears or throat, or a fluttering sensation.

Other Causes of Heart Palpitations During Exercise

You may also experience palpitations when you're pushing yourself too hard or if you are a beginner who is new to exercise and trying to get in shape. Of course, if neither of these situations is true, you should consider alternative factors. According to Harvard Medical School (HMS), palpitations can also be caused by:

  • Dehydration
  • Fever
  • Low blood sugar
  • Low potassium
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Too much caffeine, chocolate, or alcohol

Are Palpitations During Exercise Dangerous?

HMS reports that palpitations alone are not necessarily dangerous. However, few people know what different sensations in their chests really mean. What you feel could be palpitations, or it could be a dangerous problem with your heart rhythm.

The JER study found that exercise has such drastic effects on heart rate, that it's difficult to tell at first glance whether palpitations during exercise should be cause for alarm. However, that doesn't mean you should ignore them if they occur.

Safety Tips for Heart Palpitations

There are things that you can do and things that you should do if you experience heart palpitations. Sometimes heart palpitations are no big deal. But it is still important to take measures to ensure safety.

Self Care

You can try a few things to help ease palpitations, according to HMS:

  • Deep breathing: take several slow deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Valsalva maneuver: you have a few options on how to perform this technique:
    • Pinch your nose, close your mouth, then try to breathe out of your mouth with force.
    • Clench your stomach muscles and bear down like you are trying to have a bowel movement.
  • Cold water: splash cold water on your face, or submerge your face in cold water for a few moments.

If none of these seem to help, or you feel any other symptoms (listed below) with the palpitations, seek medical attention immediately.

Medical Care

Although authors of a 2016 assessment in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) noted that most experiences of heart palpitations are harmless, they also indicate that it's better to be safe than sorry. They suggest that you consult your physician if you experience heart palpitations and:

  • Dizziness
  • Persistent shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

All these instances may warrant further evaluation from a medical professional. This is especially important if you have a family history of cardiovascular disease.

How to Prevent Heart Palpations During Exercise

The HMS recommends these actions to take if you are trying to prevent palpitations either during exercise or throughout your daily routine:

  • Avoid smoking
  • Check your medications with a doctor or pharmacist
  • Drink less alcohol, or stop completely
  • Eat regular meals and snacks
  • Sleep more
  • Stay hydrated

Sometimes certain medications can predispose you to heart palpitations, so it wouldn't hurt to have your doctor look over what you're taking and make any adjustments that might help.

Remember, the best thing you can do every time you exercise is to pay attention to how your body is feeling. If you do experience heart palpitations, slow down or stop completely. Make sure to write down what type of exercise you were doing when they occurred so that you can recall the details during your visit.

It may also be helpful to write down what you ate or if you had any energy drinks beforehand, since that may also have triggered the episode. When it comes to your heart health, safety is key. Work with your doctor to come up with a plan for exercising in the future that keeps your heart healthy.

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What Causes Heart Palpitations During Exercise?