Dr. Harry Rakowski, PMCC Cardiologist, has a few tips for staying heart healthy during soccer season. (Video: UHNToronto/YouTube)

Who are you cheering for?

Flags from around the world hang in pubs, adorn cars and dangle from windows just about anywhere you look – a clear sign that the FIFA World Cup in Brazil is in full swing.

Once every four years, the 'beautiful game' unites us for a month – whether as fans watching the games on TV or as participants – organizing a mini World Cup in a neighbourhood park.

Depending on your level of play, it can be a high-impact sport. But is soccer – also known as football – good for your heart?

The big leagues

Dr. Harry Rakowski, a cardiologist at Peter Munk Cardiac Centre in Toronto, said contrary to popular belief, high-activity sports are not the main triggers for cardiac events.

"If we look at sudden death during sports activities, it is usually high-impact sports, high-activity sports. In those patients, about 40 per cent of them have an underlying heart muscle disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy," he explained.

Usually, genetic, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy means that a person's heart muscles are too thick. This can lead to arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats, and can eventually trigger a fatal cardiac event.

Other soccer players who endure serious cardiac events often have heart conditions they are not aware of, like abnormalities in their arteries.

"With extreme physical activity, because you're raising your heart rate and blood pressure, it stresses the heart more," Dr. Rakowski says. "If the heart's muscle or the heart's arteries or the heart's aorta aren't in good shape, that extra stress can damage it."

Rare, manageable heart events

These events, Dr. Rakowski cautions, are very rare and can be managed.

"If it's somebody who is 30 and is very physically fit, for example, a soccer player who is playing on a regular basis, and they have a normal heart function, then the risk to them is really very, very low."

Heart health hints at play

Dr. Rakowski offers three tips for those thinking of taking up soccer at any level:

1)    If you're middle-aged (40 years and up), see your physician to make sure you are healthy enough to play a high-activity sport. Heart disease and artery issues can sometimes go unnoticed, so it's always better to check first. 

2)    At any age – ease into the sport. Pair your game with training and stretching.  

3)    Besides heart issues, it is easy to injure yourself physically. A proper warm-up is crucial to a well-played – and safe – game.​

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