Exercise and autonomic function in health and cardiovascular disease

Cardiol Clin. 2001 Aug;19(3):369-87. doi: 10.1016/s0733-8651(05)70223-x.


Autonomic nervous system activity contributes to the regulation of cardiac output during rest, exercise, and cardiovascular disease. Measurement of HRV has been particularly useful in assessing parasympathetic activity, while its utility for assessing sympathetic function and overall sympathovagal balance remains controversial. Studies have revealed that parasympathetic tone dominates the resting state, while exercise is associated with prompt withdrawal of vagal tone and subsequent sympathetic activation. Conversely, recovery is characterized by parasympathetic activation followed by sympathetic withdrawal, although clarification of the normal trajectory and autonomic basis of heart rate decay following exercise is needed. Abnormalities in autonomic physiology--especially increased sympathetic activity, attenuated vagal tone, and delayed heart rate recovery--have been associated with increased mortality. Exercise training is associated with a relative enhancement of vagal tone, improved heart rate recovery after exercise, and reduced morbidity in patients with cardiovascular disease. However, whether exercise training leads to reduced mortality in this population because of its ability to specifically modulate autonomic function is unknown at the present time. Although the results of a recent randomized study in patients with CHF and a meta-analysis in the setting of a recent myocardial infarction determined that exercise training leads to improved outcomes in these populations, neither study measured autonomic function. Improved autonomic function due to exercise training is a promising rationale for explaining improvements in outcome, although more research is needed to confirm this hypothesis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Cardiac Rehabilitation
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Heart Failure / physiopathology
  • Heart Failure / rehabilitation
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Hemodynamics / physiology
  • Humans
  • Myocardial Infarction / physiopathology
  • Myocardial Infarction / rehabilitation
  • Physical Endurance / physiology
  • Prognosis
  • Risk Factors