Sex differences in autonomic function following maximal exercise

Rebecca M. Kappus, Sushant M. Ranadive, Huimin Yan, Abbi D. Lane-Cordova, Marc D. Cook, Peng Sun, I. Shevon Harvey, Kenneth R. Wilund, Jeffrey A. Woods, Bo Fernhall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Heart rate variability (HRV), blood pressure variability, (BPV) and heart rate recovery (HRR) are measures that provide insight regarding autonomic function. Maximal exercise can affect autonomic function, and it is unknown if there are sex differences in autonomic recovery following exercise. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to determine sex differences in several measures of autonomic function and the response following maximal exercise. Methods: Seventy-one (31 males and 40 females) healthy, nonsmoking, sedentary normotensive subjects between the ages of 18 and 35 underwent measurements of HRV and BPV at rest and following a maximal exercise bout. HRR was measured at minute one and two following maximal exercise. Results: Males have significantly greater HRR following maximal exercise at both minute one and two; however, the significance between sexes was eliminated when controlling for VO2 peak. Males had significantly higher resting BPV-low-frequency (LF) values compared to females and did not significantly change following exercise, whereas females had significantly increased BPV-LF values following acute maximal exercise. Although males and females exhibited a significant decrease in both HRV-LF and HRV-high frequency (HF) with exercise, females had significantly higher HRV-HF values following exercise. Males had a significantly higher HRV-LF/HF ratio at rest; however, both males and females significantly increased their HRV-LF/HF ratio following exercise. Conclusions: Pre-menopausal females exhibit a cardioprotective autonomic profile compared to age-matched males due to lower resting sympathetic activity and faster vagal reactivation following maximal exercise. Acute maximal exercise is a sufficient autonomic stressor to demonstrate sex differences in the critical post-exercise recovery period.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number28
JournalBiology of Sex Differences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015


  • Blood pressure variability
  • Heart rate recovery
  • Heart rate variability
  • Sympathetic activity
  • Vagal modulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies
  • Endocrinology


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