Overweight and obese people can reduce their risk of irregular heart palpitations related to atrial fibrillation (AF), an abnormal and rapid heartbeat that commonly causes poor blood flow to the body, by dropping the pounds, according to a recent study.

AF has often been described as the epidemic of the new millennium, and is expected to affect 12 million to 15 million adults in the U.S. by 2050. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest statistics, 2.66 million people were diagnosed with AF in 2010. The heart condition commonly occurs when the electrical activity of the heart is disorganized, leading to irregular heart palpitations. The abnormal heartbeat disrupts the flow of the blood through the heart, causing 15 to 20 percent of ischemic strokes. AF patients are five times more likely to suffer an ischemic stroke because the condition allows blood to pool in the heart. Blood pooling is more likely to form clots that can be carried to the brain and cause a stroke.

While the condition often targets those of older age, researchers speculate that excessive weight gain can be a contributing factor to its prevalence. The extra weight can have a significant impact on the atria — the upper chambers of the heart. Obesity can increase inflammation and contribute to the thickening of the heart’s wall which can lead to AF, the researchers said.

They examined whether weight loss and managing cardiometabolic risk factors — the chances of having diabetes, heart disease, or stroke — could alleviate AF symptoms in patients. The study included 150 overweight and obese patients with a body-mass index greater than 27, who were between the ages of 21 and 75, and suffered from symptomatic AF.

Half of the participants were randomly assigned to a weight loss group that required patients to consume a low-calorie diet of between 800 and 1,200 calories per day for the first eight weeks. The experimental group received a weight-loss shake for two of their meals, and a third meal with high levels of proteins, according to HealthDay. The weight loss group also had to follow a written exercise plan that prescribed low-intensity exercise like walking or cycling three times a week, starting at 20 minutes per session, and gradually increasing up to 45 minutes.

The control group, along with the experiment group both received nutrition and fitness advice to reduce cardiometabolic risk factors.

In the study, AF severity was measured by using scores on the Atrial Fibrillation Severity Scale every three months from baseline to 15 months. The researchers found that the symptom severity scores of those in the weight loss group were reduced to 8.4 when compared with controls, who only experienced a 1.7-point reduction. The weight loss management group also saw a reduction in the AF episodes for an average of 2.5 compared to no change witnessed in the control group. The duration of AF decreased 692 minutes in the experiment group, compared to 419 minutes among the group that only received nutrition and fitness advice.

On average, the participants in the weight loss management group lost 33lbs. when compared to an average of 12.5 lbs. by the advice group. Although both groups showed reduced AF symptoms, the weight loss group experienced the most benefits when it came to reductions in AF problems.

"Most of those patients we included were on our waiting list to undergo ablation procedures to eliminate their atrial fibrillation," Dr. Prashanthan Sanders from the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Australia, and lead author of the study, told Reuters Health. He also added that most patients didn’t end up needing the procedure after the study. While there is no easy way to lose weight, Dr. Sanders encourages AF patients to keep going as their symptoms improve.

People experience a four to five percent increased risk of atrial fibrillation every time their BMI increases by one point, according to the study. Therefore, losing weight may act as a protective factor against the onset of AF symptoms escalating.

"Time and time again, any weight loss has been shown to help people," Dr. Gordon Tomaselli, past president of the American Heart Association, told HealthDay. "Exercise is good for you. If you exercise more tomorrow than you did today, you're doing the right thing." Weight loss may potentially eliminate the possibility of undergoing ablation to eliminate AF.

In a similar study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers found that yoga could significantly reduce symptoms and improve the quality of life in patients with paroxysmal AF. Three months of yoga training resulted in the emergence of fewer symptoms, and declines in heart rate and systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

It is important for AF patients to follow the necessary health guidelines to stabilize their irregular heartbeat and reduce their risk of a stroke.

To learn about more preventative strategies for AF, click here.

Sources: Abed HS, Antic NA, Bahrami B, et al. Effect of Weight Reduction and Cardiometabolic Risk Factor Management on Symptom Burden and Severity in Patients With Atrial FibrillationA Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2013.

Atkins D, Dawn B, Drisko J, et al. Effect of Yoga on Arrhythmia Burden, Anxiety, Depression, and Quality of Life in Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2013.