Dysfunction of the cardiac autonomic nervous system is a known complication of end-stage renal disease. The objective of the study was to mainly investigate the effects of physical training on 24-hour vagal cardiac activity in dialysis patients. Sixty chronic uremic patients (mean age 48 +/- 12 years) on maintenance hemodialysis were studied. After initial evaluation, 30 patients (group A) were randomly assigned to a 6-month exercise training program (3/week). The other 30 patients (group B) and 30 nonuremic sedentary persons (group C) remained untrained and were used as controls. Parasympathetic activity was assessed at the beginning and the end of the study noninvasively from 24-hour electrocardiographic ambulatory monitoring by calculating heart rate variability (HRV). HRV index, mean NN interval, and standard deviation NN (SDNN) were measured according to the "triangular method." At baseline HRV index, mean RR, SDNN, and aerobic capacity were significantly reduced in both hemodialysis groups compared with values in group C. Also, 40% of all patients on hemodialysis and 16% of group C had arrhythmias (Lown class >II). Moreover, hemodialysis patients with a more depressed HRV index (<25, n = 37) had a higher incidence of arrhythmias (60%) compared to those with HRV index >25 (p <0.05). Exercise training in group A significantly increased HRV index from 22 +/- 7 to 28 +/- 9 (p <0.05) and SDNN from 0.11 +/- 0.03 to 0.13 +/- 0.04 (p <0.05). Furthermore, fewer patients continued to have an HRV index <25 (by 40%) and arrhythmias (by 33%) compared with baseline data. Training was also associated with a significant improvement in fitness level, as assessed by maximal oxygen consumption (by 41%; p <0.05) and exercise testing duration (by 33%; p <0.05). There was a significant correlation in HRV index and maximal oxygen consumption. No changes were observed in the control groups between baseline and follow-up data. Results demonstrate that physical training in hemodialysis patients augments cardiac vagal activity and decreases vulnerability to arrhythmias.