High intensity sport and cardiac conditions

Is there a link between sport and cardiac arrest? Can high intensity sport cause cardiac events? If you have an undetected cardiovascular condition then it might – but, for the vast majority of people, exercise remains hugely beneficial




Over the years, a number of high-profile sportspeople under the age of 35 have been affected by undetected cardiovascular conditions. Footballer Fabrice Muamba and cricketer James Taylor both survived their cardiac events but, tragically, there are fatalities, every year in endurance events such as the London Marathon.

“Affected people under the age of 35 could have an inherited condition – although they may be the first person in their family to experience it” says Dr Mark Mason, consultant cardiologist at Royal Brompton & Harefield Hospitals Specialist Care. Broadly, problems result from different types of cardiomyopathy (which affects the heart ventricles) or harder-to-find channelopathies, which are underlying conditions causing abnormal rhythms in an otherwise normal heart. Most over-35s who experience a cardiac event, meanwhile, will do so because previously undiagnosed coronary artery disease.

Know the symptoms

If you have an undetected cardiovascular condition then longer duration, high intensity exercise could heighten the risk of a cardiac event, particularly in the over-35s. However, Dr Mason stresses, the overwhelming evidence is that exercise is hugely beneficial for the vast majority of people. So it’s important to keep active.

“To put it in perspective, around on in 20,000 exercisers per year have a cardiac event,” says Dr Mason. “instances are probably lower for the under-35s who are generally healthy, and a bit higher for those over 35 with underlying cardiovascular risk”

Symptoms can include shortness of breath, lightheadedness or blackouts, heart palpitations or chest pain, “which could be tightness, heaviness, or the sensation of having a belt being tightened around your chest,” says Dr Mason.

Make lifestyle changes

Over-35s can reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by eating a healthy diet and cutting out smoking. In the under-35s, however, reducing the risk of a cardiac event is more challenging – particularly if you don’t know you have a problem to begin with. “Then we get into the contentious issue of mass screening programmes,” says Dr Mason.

In Italy, for example, anyone between the ages of 16 and 35 has to undergo screening – by law – before participating in sport at any level. “As a result, it’s estimated that Italy has reduced its instances of cardiac events by around 90 per cent,” says Dr Mason. However, as high profile cases such ass Piermario Morisini and Davis Astori show, there is still a risk.

Dr Antonis Pantazis
Consultant Cardiologist

Dr Antonis Pantazis is a leading expert in inherited heart muscle conditions, known as cardiomyopathies. Dr Pantazis has a special interest in all cardiomyopathies.



Dr Mark Mason
Consultant cardiologist & director of the Heart Division at Harefield Hospital

Dr Mason has extensive experience in implanting pacemakers and ICDs, with a particular interest in Cardiac Resynchronisation Therapy (or ‘Biventricular Pacing’).