Exercise-related benefits for heart health present already in youth – even light exercise is beneficial

According to a recent study conducted in Oulu, Finland, in young men even light physical activity had beneficial effects on the heart health. Regular exercise increased heart rate variability, which reflects autonomic nervous regulation of the heart and is an indicator of heart health.

The study was part of the MOPO project carried out at the University of Oulu and the ODL Department of Sports and Exercise Medicine, consisting of 3,395 young men participating at the mandatory call-ups in 2009–2013. The men underwent body composition, aerobic performance and heart rate variability measurements, and they completed an extensive health and lifestyle questionnaire. The intensity and frequency of exercise was assessed by a questionnaire and the respondents were categorized into four groups of PA (low, moderate, high and top).  

Heart rate variability was greater in men who had high amount of exercise, irrespective of the person's body mass index. Amount of exercise was the most significant factor explaining heart rate variability. Interestingly, even light physical activity was associated with increased heart rate variability.

“It is well known that regular endurance training is good for your heart health. Now we also know that even light exercise has beneficial effects on heart, which can be observed already at youth. Hopefully, these research results will also encourage the physically inactive young people to participate in physical activities,” says researcher Jaakko Tornberg.

Heart rate variability is used to assess the autonomous regulation of the heart by measuring subtle variations in the time interval between heartbeats. High vagal heart rate variability, determined by parasympathetic regulation, is associated with good autonomous heart regulation, health, body composition and physical condition.

High intensity physical activity has been shown to be associated with vagal heart rate variability, and previous studies have shown that especially regular endurance training reduces the resting heart rate and increases vagal heart rate variability at rest.

On the other hand, conflicting results exist about the link between low intensity physical activity and heart rate variability, and demographic data about the relationship of the physical activity of young men and heart rate variability have been scarce.


Further information:

Jaakko Tornberg, MSc (Sport and Health Sciences), researcher
University of Oulu and ODL Sports Clinic
tel. + 358 50 312 5760


Research publication: Tornberg J, Ikäheimo TM, Kiviniemi A, Pyky R, Hautala A, et al. (2019) Physical activity is associated with cardiac autonomic function in adolescent men. PLOS ONE 14(9): e0222121. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0222121


Last updated: 17.10.2019