Potential side effects of unhealthy lifestyle choices and health risks on basal and reactive heart rate variability in college drinkers

J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2013 Sep;74(5):787-96. doi: 10.15288/jsad.2013.74.787.


Objective: Emerging adults often begin making independent lifestyle choices during college, yet the association of these choices with fundamental indicators of health and adaptability is unclear. The present study examined the relationship between health risks and neurocardiac function in college drinkers.

Method: Heart rate variability (HRV) was assessed at baseline and in reaction to a paced breathing challenge in 212 college drinkers (53.8% women). Basal HRV served as a general indicator of health. Reactive HRV (during paced breathing) was used as a marker of an individual's adaptability to challenge. The relationship of HRV to alcohol use, cigarette use, exercise, sleep, and body mass index (BMI) was assessed.

Results: Greater alcohol use and less exercise were associated with lower basal HRV. BMI was unrelated to basal HRV but was negatively associated with reactive HRV during the breathing challenge.

Conclusions: High levels of alcohol use and lack of exercise are negative correlates of cardiovascular and general health, even in apparently healthy college drinkers. The negative relationship between BMI and reactive HRV suggests that overweight individuals have reduced ability to psychophysiologically adapt to challenges; understanding the temporal course of this relationship is needed. This study highlights the importance of examining HRV at baseline and in response to a challenge to capture the active neurocardiac processes that contribute to health and adaptive responding. The suppressive effects of health risks on HRV are modifiable; thus, HRV may be useful in evaluating the health benefits of lifestyle change and in promoting change behaviors in college drinkers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Body Mass Index
  • Exercise
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Life Style*
  • Male
  • Respiration
  • Smoking / epidemiology
  • Students / statistics & numerical data*
  • Universities
  • Young Adult