Leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) has considerable benefits for cardiovascular health and longevity, while occupational physical activity (OPA) is associated with an elevated cardiovascular risk. This “health paradox” may be explained by different effects on the autonomic nervous system from OPA and LTPA. Thus, we aimed to investigate whether objectively measured OPA and LTPA are differentially associated with autonomic regulation among workers.
The study comprised 514 blue-collar workers from the Danish cohort DPHACTO. Physical activity (i.e. walking, climbing stairs, running and cycling) was assessed objectively using accelerometers worn on the thigh, hip and trunk over multiple working days. During this period, a heart rate monitor was used to sample heart period intervals from the ECG signal. Heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) indices were analyzed during nocturnal sleep as markers of autonomic regulation. Multiple regression analysis was used to determine the main effects of OPA and LTPA and their interaction on heart rate and HRV, adjusting for multiple confounders.
Statistically significant interaction was found between OPA and LTPA on heart rate (adjusted p<0.0001) and HRV indices in time (rMSSD, adjusted p = 0.004) and frequency-domains (HF, adjusted p = 0.022; LF, adjusted p = 0.033). The beneficial effect of LTPA on nocturnal heart rate and HRV clearly diminished with higher levels of OPA, and high levels of both OPA and LTPA had a detrimental effect.
We found contrasting associations for objectively measured OPA and LTPA with heart rate and HRV during sleep. Differential effects of OPA and LTPA on autonomic regulation may contribute to the physical activity health paradox.