Physical activity, body mass index and heart rate variability-based stress and recovery in 16 275 Finnish employees: a cross-sectional study

BMC Public Health. 2016 Aug 2:16:701. doi: 10.1186/s12889-016-3391-4.


Background: Physical inactivity, overweight, and work-related stress are major concerns today. Psychological stress causes physiological responses such as reduced heart rate variability (HRV), owing to attenuated parasympathetic and/or increased sympathetic activity in cardiac autonomic control. This study's purpose was to investigate the relationships between physical activity (PA), body mass index (BMI), and HRV-based stress and recovery on workdays, among Finnish employees.

Methods: The participants in this cross-sectional study were 16 275 individuals (6863 men and 9412 women; age 18-65 years; BMI 18.5-40.0 kg/m(2)). Assessments of stress, recovery and PA were based on HRV data from beat-to-beat R-R interval recording (mainly over 3 days). The validated HRV-derived variables took into account the dynamics and individuality of HRV. Stress percentage (the proportion of stress reactions, workday and working hours), and stress balance (ratio between recovery and stress reactions, sleep) describe the amount of physiological stress and recovery, respectively. Variables describing the intensity (i.e. magnitude of recognized reactions) of physiological stress and recovery were stress index (workday) and recovery index (sleep), respectively. Moderate to vigorous PA was measured and participants divided into the following groups, based on calculated weekly PA: inactive (0 min), low (0 < 150 min), medium (150-300 min), and high (>300 min). BMI was calculated from self-reported weight and height. Linear models were employed in the main analyses.

Results: High PA was associated with lower stress percentages (during workdays and working hours) and stress balance. Higher BMI was associated with higher stress index, and lower stress balance and recovery index. These results were similar for men and women (P < 0.001 for all).

Conclusion: Independent of age and sex, high PA was associated with a lower amount of stress on workdays. Additionally, lower BMI was associated with better recovery during sleep, expressed by a greater amount and magnitude of recovery reactions, which suggests that PA in the long term resulting in improved fitness has a positive effect on recovery, even though high PA may disturb recovery during the following night. Obviously, several factors outside of the study could also affect HRV-based stress.

Keywords: Body mass index; Heart rate variability; Physical activity; Physiological stress; Stress; Stress assessment.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Body Mass Index*
  • Body Weight
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Employment*
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Female
  • Finland
  • Heart Rate*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity* / physiopathology
  • Obesity* / psychology
  • Overweight
  • Self Report
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / prevention & control*
  • Work