The differential effect of occupational and leisure time physical activity on cardiovascular health is termed the physical activity health paradox. Cardiac autonomic modulation could bring insights about the underlying mechanism behind this differential effect. The aim was to compare heart rate variability (HRV) during different activities (sitting, standing and moving) at work and leisure among blue-collar workers.
One hundred thirty-eight workers from the NOMAD cohort were included. Data from physical activity and HRV were obtained for 3–4 days using tri-axial accelerometers (Actigraph GT3X+) and a heart rate monitor (Actiheart). HRV indices were determined during sitting, standing and moving both at work and leisure. Linear mixed-models with two fixed factors (activities and domains) were applied to investigate differences in HRV indices adjusting for individual and occupational factors.
The results showed significant effects of domain (p < 0.01), physical activity type (p < 0.01) and interaction between domain and activity type (p < 0.01) on HRV indices. Mean heart rate (IBI) and parasympathetic measures of HRV (RMSSD and HF) were lower for sitting (p < 0.01) and higher for moving (p < 0.01) during work compared with leisure, while no difference between domains was found for standing (p > 0.05). Sympathovagal balance (LF/HF) was higher during work for sitting and moving (p < 0.01), but showed no difference for standing (p = 0.62).
Differences in cardiac autonomic modulation between work and leisure were found, indicating sympathetic predominance during work and parasympathetic predominance during leisure for sitting. Autonomic responses can be part of the mechanism that explains the differential effect of occupational and leisure time physical activity on health.