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Am J Epidemiol. 2003 Jul 15;158(2):135-43.

Effects of moderate and vigorous physical activity on heart rate variability in a British study of civil servants.

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Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, United Kingdom.


Physical inactivity and low resting heart rate variability (HRV) are associated with increased coronary heart disease incidence. In the Whitehall II study of civil servants aged 45-68 years (London, United Kingdom, 1997-1999), the strength of the association of moderate and vigorous activity with higher HRV was examined. Five-minute recordings of heart rate and HRV measures were obtained from 3328 participants. Calculated were time domain (standard deviation of NN intervals) and high-frequency-power measures as indicators of cardiac parasympathetic activity and low-frequency power of parasympathetic-sympathetic balance. Leisure-time physical activity (metabolic equivalent-hours per week) was categorized as moderate (>or=3-<5) and vigorous (>or=5). Moderate and vigorous physical activity were associated with higher HRV and lower heart rate. For men, linear trends of higher low-frequency power with increasing quartile of vigorous activity (304.6 (low), 329.0, 342.4, 362.5 (high); p < 0.01) and lower heart rate with increasing quartile of moderate activity (69.6 (low), 69.2, 68.9, 67.8 (high); p < 0.05) were found. These associations remained significant after adjustment for smoking and high alcohol intake. For men whose body mass index was >25 kg/m(2), vigorous activity was associated with HRV levels similar to those for normal-weight men who engaged in no vigorous activity. Vigorous activity was associated with higher HRV, representing a possible mechanism by which physical activity reduces coronary heart disease risk.

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