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Physical activity is a major contributor to the ultra low frequency components of heart rate variability
  1. J M Serrador,
  2. H C Finlayson,
  3. R L Hughson
  1. Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1, Canada
  1. Dr Hughson email: hughson{at}


OBJECTIVE To investigate the link between changes in level of physical activity and the pattern of heart rate variability during long term ambulatory monitoring.

DESIGN Heart rate variability was measured simultaneously with a quantitative indicator of muscle activity by electromyography (EMG) in five men and five women while they did activities typical of daily life or while they rested for 2–3 hours. Spectral and cross spectral analyses were performed on both variables with standard fast Fourier transform.

RESULTS There was a marked reduction in spectral power in the ultra low frequency band (< 0.003 Hz) on going from active to rest conditions for both heart rate variability (men 6187 (1801) v 410 (89) ms2/Hz; women 4056 (1161) v 2094 (801), mean (SEM); p < 0.01) and EMG (p < 0.001). Cross spectral analysis showed a strong positive gain between the EMG and heart rate variability signal that was virtually eliminated in the resting condition (p < 0.01). A sex-by-condition effect (p = 0.06) was noted with a reduction in total spectral power for heart rate variability during rest in men, while it increased slightly in women.

CONCLUSIONS There is a quantitative link between muscle activation and heart rate variability in the lowest frequency band. Voluntary restriction of physical activity in healthy young subjects caused marked reduction in spectral power in the lowest frequency band which is often used to assess patient prognosis. The findings strongly suggest that studies of ambulatory heart rate variability should always include an indication of physical activity patterns.

  • spectral analysis
  • electromyography
  • Holter monitoring
  • sex effect

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